The South China Sea Is a Litmus Test for Sino-U.S. Relations

American officials were recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying the U.S. military will send warships and fighter jets to the South China Sea as a show of its concern over maritime safety. They said U.S. warships would come within 12 nautical miles of where China is building artificial islands.

The claims have set off a major storm in the international community, with some questioning the intentions of the United States, while others are worried the move will trigger military conflict between China and the United States.

Beijing has expressed its grave concerns, and an exchange of words between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a press conference is also intriguing. Kerry was recently in Beijing to make preparations for President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in September. He asked China to show restraint over the South China Sea dispute and to seek to resolve the problem via peaceful means. In response, Wang said China’s resolve for safeguarding its sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea is as strong as rock.



Did the Game Just Change in the South China Sea? (And What Should the U.S. Do About It?)

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As the 14th annual Asia Security Summit—or the Shangri-La Dialogue, as it has come to be known—gets underway in Singapore, we asked contributors to comment on what appears to be a recent escalation in tensions between the U.S. and China over the two...

The Sino-U.S. relationship is the most important of all bilateral ties in the 21st century. It is so important that it not only has a bearing on the well-being of the two peoples, but also impacts the dynamics of international politics in the new century and the transformation of the world order. World peace and development hinge upon whether China and the United States can maintain steady relations.

There is a lot of misunderstanding between the two countries right now. If this is translated into containment policies, hope for a “new type of major-country relationship” between China and the United States will burst like a bubble and bilateral ties will slide downhill. That is why it is so important for the two countries to deal with the South China Sea issue.

If we look at how the world has been evolving, we have entered a brand new era. The United States and China are the number one and number two economies in the world, and as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and as nations with nuclear weapons, both shoulder a special responsibility for maintaining world peace and for making the world more prosperous. This conviction is enshrined in the U.N.’s charter.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and it has been 70 years since the United States began to dominate the international stage. At this juncture of historical importance, we need to look at the problems we are facing from the collective perspective of all mankind. We should not pursue gains for an individual or one single country at the expense of the interests of the rest of the world.

From a geopolitical point of view, the United States is an established world power, while China is an emerging power. It is clear that as one's influence wanes, the other’s impact grows, which might lead to the “Thucydides trap.”

In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, a detailed study of the war between Sparta and Athens, the Greek historian and political philosopher concluded that “emerging powers” would inevitably go to war with “established powers.” Does history repeat itself? This is a question that perplexes the world.

Strategic differences between China and the United States define their tensions and they will not automatically disappear; the adversarial aspect of the Sino-U.S. relationship will exist for a long time. Both countries have been cooperating on certain issues while colliding on others. There is a question over whether shared interests will outweigh differences, or vice versa. If both countries turn a blind eye to this question or bury their heads in the sand, there is no way they can find an answer. So they must face up to the reality and look deeper into their bilateral relations from a historical and pragmatic perspective. The two countries should also take the fundamental interests of all mankind as their own to explore ways to avoid the “Thucydides trap.” In so doing, the nations can smooth out their ties and maintain steady relations before they address their differences over the South China Sea.

No matter the perspective, the Sino-U.S. relationship is more complex than historians and political scientists in the West imagine. Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State, and former U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who have both played a key role in the Sino-U.S. relationship, have used the word “complex” to describe the difficulties in managing bilateral ties.

On top of geopolitics, both countries also have differences in ideology. In the eyes of Americans, China is like an alien; the Chinese also see Americans this way.



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However, the Sino-U.S. relationship is much more than a simple bilateral relationship; it can decide the international order. As such, we need to look at Sino-U.S. ties on two levels: the relationship itself and correlations between that relationship and the international order. Even the issues involving bilateral ties are not only the business of the two countries because the way the two countries approach each other affect the whole world.

There have been so many examples in history in which an emerging power tried to challenge an established one and a war erupted when the latter hit back hard. Such a pattern is seen as a rule in the West, one that guides international relations. The fact that rivalry between two great countries has led to more wars than truces in history often results in wide pessimism regarding Sino-U.S. ties.

University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer, a leading academic in neorealism, once concluded that a rising China will inevitably challenge American hegemony and, in the meantime, the United States is certain to fight back, so a final conflict is unavoidable. His 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics has been a best-seller for more than a decade and has become a must-read for American politicians, which speaks volumes about its far-reaching influence. The United States’ “offshore balance” strategy and its derivative “Asia-Pacific rebalance” have exemplified his influence.

The United States’ response to the South China Sea dispute bears the hallmark of “offshore rebalancing.” This is not the “balancing” we usually understand because the Pacific Ocean separates both countries and the United States has no way of “balancing” China directly. Instead, it has tried to use China’s disputes with its neighbors in areas such as maritime rights to sow antagonism among these countries toward China and to undercut its clout.

The United States has tried to turn some of the regional disputes among Asian countries into global issues in order to kill several birds with one stone. This can create antagonism among China’s neighbors, causing it to be isolated or contained. It can also serve to create tensions between China and other countries in the region, resulting in a rebalancing of power in Asia from which the United States can reap benefits. The current tensions in the South China Sea have much to do with the balancing strategy of the United States.

The United States has been at the forefront of confronting China about its infrastructure building in the South China Sea, but it should have second thoughts about an aggressive balancing strategy. For China, the South China Sea and the surrounding areas are important because 80 percent of its trade travels through sea routes and a similar amount of its petroleum imports go through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca before entering the South China Sea.

The islands and reefs of the South China Sea have historically belonged to China, and its rights to the islands and reefs throughout history are recognized by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Several countries have built infrastructure on the islands and reefs they have occupied, so why has the United States only pointed a finger at China? Is this what we know as taking sides?

China has demonstrated a sense of responsibility and tolerance as a big country. It has two goals in its handling of Sino-U.S. ties: the lesser one is to avoid the tragedy of going to war with other great powers and the larger goal is to have win-win cooperation with the United States so the two countries can work together for a fairer, equal, and sensible international order.

Xi took into account the lessons of history when he proposed that China and the United States build a “new type of major-country relationship” based on a commitment to avoiding conflicts and building mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

To serve the fundamental interests of the two peoples and the welfare of all mankind, he expressed China’s wish for win-win and win-for-all scenarios, and this has been on full display in China’s diplomatic policies. Under these policies, China will not make a fuss and will abandon the “zero-sum game” mentality.

For many years, “containing” or “countering” China has gained popularity in the United States, and the reason for this is concern about China’s rise. On the surface, such worries might be justified, but fundamentally they are groundless. In recent years, both the United States and Japan have begun to worry about how China’s rapid development may threaten the status quo.

Some Asian countries have reaped the benefits of economic cooperation with China. But as the United States has been implementing its “pivot toward Asia” and Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, these nations are turning to the United States for a so-called security guarantee, which offers the United States and its allies an excuse to contain China.

In fact, China has never challenged or thought of challenging U.S. hegemony. However, if the United States goes beyond what it needs to do to “deter” and “balance” and if it crosses the line, a conflict between the two countries cannot be ruled out. The United States should not underestimate China’s resolve to defend its sovereignty.

The primary challenge both countries face right now is how they can manage bilateral relations to achieve a win-win goal based on a “new type of major-country relationship.” The utmost task for both countries is to nurture the relationship through concrete efforts and to work toward that goal one step at a time.

It is worth noting that senior leaders from both countries have reached a consensus over the importance of bilateral ties and their impact on the international order, which was underscored by talks between Xi and U.S. President Barack Obama at Sunnylands in June 2013 and again at Zhongnanhai in November 2014.

Globalization has made all countries depend on each other more than ever. We can even say that interdependence is the world order nowadays, and as such a global village is the world’s “new normal.” Globalization has fundamentally changed the dynamics of Sino-U.S. ties so much that some American economists have even referred to the relationship as “Chimerica.”

During his recent meeting with Kerry, Xi reaffirmed that an ocean as wide as the Pacific provides enough space to accommodate two countries as big as China and the United States. He also expressed hope the two countries can advance in the same direction. As two major world powers, they face enormous challenges, but also have a huge opportunity to reform the ways the international order is maintained and to formulate a new order. Xi has also said that both countries have enough wisdom to solve their problems and to embrace a wonderful future.