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US and China’s anxieties

January 14, 2013

AT a speech in New York in October 2011, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the United States would make an “important pivot” back to the Pacific.

At a time of increasing Chinese assertiveness, Asian nations naturally welcomed the pivot. But soon after, this pivot started to look like a poisoned chalice for the US, insofar as regional stability was concerned.

Last year, tensions flared up between certain Asean members and China over disputed territories in the South China Sea. Asian countries fretted over China’s rapid military development. And Japan’s expression of right-wing inclinations raised much concern across the region.

More importantly, the US move generated near panic among Chinese officials and analysts, who suspected Washington was practising an old-style containment strategy.

More than a year into the pivot, two truths seem increasingly evident: The US doubts China’s oft-quoted mantra of a “peaceful rise”. China, for its part, sees the US pivot as a bid to contain it.

This is not surprising, given that despite efforts by both Beijing and Washington, they face what is referred to as a persistent security dilemma — one country’s bid to boost its security leads to a diminution in security for another, which in turn prompts arms races and the outbreak of outright hostilities.

Prof Graham Allison of Harvard University alludes to the Thucydides trap. Coined after the Greek historian, the term refers to the dangers created when a rising power challenges a ruling power. In 11 of 15 such cases since 1500, war followed.

Three international relations experts have fielded three solutions.

First, the US could concede the field to China in the Asia-Pacific. This sounds elegant in theory, particularly at a time of fiscal contraction in the US. But one can only imagine the chaos that would ensue in the region should this actually occur.

Second, the US could resist or contain China’s rising influence. But given the interdependence between the two countries, this option would be tantamount to Uncle Sam cutting off his nose to spite his face.

Third, the US could share power with China.

In The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, Prof Hugh White of the Australian National University suggested the US and China should be part of a “concert of powers” that would carve out respective “spheres of influence” in Asia.

His analysis is problematic. How would Vietnam — which has fought against Chinese domination for a millennium — react to Indochina being subsumed into China’s orbit? Also, Asian countries in their respective spheres would have to make a choice between the US and China — an option many of them find inimical.

And to its credit, the US already shares power with China. The emerging East Asia summit — which includes the US, China, Asean nations and another six countries — seeks to give China a say in the regional order.

The question, however, is whether China is satisfied with such an arrangement. The answer is “no”.

Speaking to The Straits Times last September, Major-General Zhu Chenghu, a professor at China’s National Defence University, admitted both China and the US were holding on to Cold War-era mentalities.

“If China doesn’t have a Cold War mentality, why does it see the US as the main threat? If the US doesn’t have a Cold War mentality, why does it deploy so many troops in Asia?” he said.

They should “sit down and talk at a deeper level” to maintain stability in their relationship, he noted.

Rather than divide up the Asia-Pacific, as suggested by Prof White, the US and China could adopt an incremental approach. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network