US has forced itself into strategic dilemma
Has the relationship between China and theUnited States reached “a tipping point”? This question has become important at a time when theUS seems to encourage some of China’s neighbors to challenge Beijing’s legitimate interests in the South China Sea. Addressing Japan’s upper house of parliament on June 3, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III audaciously, and wrongly, likened China toNazi Germany citing the South China Sea disputes in an obvious attempt to invite Japan and theUS to meddle in the region.
On June 1, US President Barack Obama did concede that “it may be that some of their (China’s) claims are legitimate”, but he still urged China to stop construction work on its own islands and islets. Of course, Obama turned a blind eye to the fact that the Philippines and Vietnam have already built outposts on the reefs they illegally occupy in the South China Sea.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the ShangriLa Dialogue in Singapore that his country was “deeply concerned” over China’s land reclamation and the fear of further militarization of the islands. Even Japan, which has nothing to do with disputes in the South China Sea, is trying to meddle in the waters by raising the issue at the just concluded G7 summit in Bavaria, Germany.
History tells us that major powers should take emergencies seriously, properly manage their differences and control crises, otherwise they could end up being towed by small countries toward military confrontations, similar to the ones that led toWorldWar I.
Such being the case, the “new type of major power relationship” between China and the US, an idea propounded by President Xi Jinping in 2013 on the principle of non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, could also be undermined byWashington’s Asian allies likeManila.
TheUS-led alliances played a vital role in maintaining Washington’s global hegemony as well as regional stability. TheUS-Japan alliance, which put an end to Japan’s militarism and ensured the country’s peaceful development in the postwar years, is a case in point.
To avoid theThucydides’ trap, or the inevitable clash between a rising power and an existing one, China is not supposed to challenge theUS’ postwar leadership without giving it a second thought. But theUS should not seek to contain the rise ofChina either by ignoring Japan’s right-wing tendency in a bid to maintain its global dominance.
What essentially is going wrong in the fadingUS hegemony is its exclusiveness. By seeing China as a latent threat and a mighty challenger, theUS has forced itself into a strategic dilemma— Washington thinks it will either damage its credibility by not helping its allies or have to directly confront Beijing to defend them.
To some extent, Washington’s increasing unfriendly gestures, like flying its military planes over the South China Sea and the arrest of some Chinese scholars on allegations of espionage last month, reflect its rising concern over Beijing, which has become more confident of participating in world affairs. The launching of the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for instance, have made theUS’ efforts to restrain China rather futile.
In this sense, the so-called tipping point does not indicate any substantial change in either country’s strategic strength. Instead, it shows theUS’ attempts to maintain its hegemony is greatly hampering bilateral exchanges. Therefore, the tipping-point theory, even if not true, is a wake-up call to China and theUS both to properly handle their ties amid diplomatic tensions; it is a confusing overstatement as well.
Washington must realize that Beijing will not recklessly challenge its leadership. It must also realize that it cannot contain Beijing either because of the massive potential of their bilateral relations. China-US relations will not reach a tipping point should the two sides heed lessons from history and shelve their disputes in the light of long-term interests. The author is director of the Center for European Union Studies at Renmin University of China and a senior fellow of Charhar Institute.