The US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to China exemplified a complex dynamics of relations between the existing superpower and an aspiring one.
The US’ “Manifest Destiny” and China’s “Middle Kingdom Mentality” appear ready to accelerate cold confrontation between the US and China. Both the US and Chinese officials reject the theory of “Great Power Transition” that stipulate armed conflict between the departing hegemonic power and the new hegemon.
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao was of the opinion that war was not inevitable between a declining power and a rising power. His successor, Xi Jinping, is pushing for a new kind of Great Power relations.
On the eve of Kerry’s trip to China, Evan Madeiros, a senior US National Security Council official, remarked, “We’re aware of the historical predictions that a rising power and an established power are destined for rivalry and confrontation. We simply reject that premise.”
Although a military clash between the US and China is progressively becoming improbable, a kind of cold confrontation between them has been quietly developing in the Asian theatre.
The Sino-US cold confrontation is the result of an altered geopolitical order in the Asia Pacific from the early years of 21st century. As the US stayed engaged in warring against the Afghan insurgents and the Al Qaeda activists; indulged in misplaced military intervention in Iraq; and experienced a faltering economy, Chinese economic influence in Asia sky-rocketed, and its military modernisation perceptually began to threaten US hegemonic presence in the region.
The People’s Liberation Army of China developed anti-access and area-denial capability, threatening the hitherto uninterrupted movement of the US naval vessels in the region. The wide-ranging debate over the relative decline of the US influence and China’s drive towards a superpower status reflected an indisputable contest for influence in the Asia Pacific.
Currently, the US consternation that China may surface as an Asian hegemon, and the Chinese angst that the US intends to restrict the growth of the Chinese power, will shape strategic landscape in Asia in coming years.
The current Sino-US cold confrontation has taken the shape of a passionate competition for regional influence, an occasional show of force, and conflicting positions on bilateral and regional disputes.
Instances of the Sino-US cold confrontation are discernible in critical differences between Washington and Beijing on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues; the Syrian civil war; the Sino-Japanese disputes over the Shenkaku/Diaoyu islands; the Sino-Filipino disputes over Mischief Reef and the Scharborough shoal; and the Chinese declaration of a nine-dash-line encompassing its sovereignty in the South China Sea.
China’s muscle flexing in the region has bamboozled the Obama Administration. In 2012, Chinese ships occupied a reef 125 miles off the coast of the Philippines and blocked access to Filipino ships. In November 2013, China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in East China Sea and in December 2013, a Chinese ship, by design, came close to a US-guided missile destroyer Cowpens, and risked dangerous collision.
In January 2014, China’s Hainan Province announced a new law requiring “all foreigners or foreign ships” to get approval before they could fish in the two million square kilometer of the sea. More recently, in February 2014, China parked three ships on a disputed reef, about fifty miles from the Malaysian coast and reportedly held a ceremony to “safeguard sovereignty and territorial interests.”
The US reacted to China’s declaration of ADIZ by flying two B-52 bombers and endorsing similar moves by Japan and South Korea. The US has called for a multilateral approach to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea and considers the Chinese nine-dash-lines as “inconsistent with international law.”
China’s anger is actually its response to Obama’s strategy of the Asian rebalance. China has since picked fights with most US allies and strategic partners in the region. Notwithstanding the voluminous explanations from the US officials, the Chinese leadership reads a new containment strategy in the Asia rebalance strategy.
China fumed, when, during his visit to China, Secretary Kerry cautioned the Chinese against declaring any ADIZ in South China Sea. It advised the US to be mindful of Chinese sovereignty and stressed that “no one can shake” China’s determination to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Asian security will indubitably hinge upon the nature of the US-China relations in coming years. The US allies have found in China a constructive economic partner, but they continue to rely upon Washington’s security commitments.
China realises the importance of economic cooperation with the US to sustain its economic growth, but it has issues with the US hegemony in Asia. Its military modernisation is aimed at stimulating Chinese influence and constraining the US’ hegemony in the Asia Pacific. A Sino-US bipolar cold confrontation will thus be the dominant paradigm of the Asian security discourse in the coming future.
Cold confrontation, nonetheless, will remain within limits and will not escalate to armed confrontation. The complex Sino-US economic interdependence will preclude a Cold War.