How to avoid a Sino-American war

By Zhao Minghao
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, November 25, 2015
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Zhao Minghao (file photo) 

In a few weeks time, senior U.S. and Chinese leaders will sit down in Washington for their annual "strategic dialogue." Given rising tensions in the South China Sea, that dialogue is taking on increasing importance.

In 2001, when an American EP-3 spy aircraft operating over the South China Sea collided with a Chinese air force interceptor jet near Hainan Island, Chinese and U.S. leaders managed to defuse the situation and avoid a military confrontation. Today, such an incident in the South China Sea, where China and several southeast Asian countries have competing territorial claims, would almost certainly lead to an armed clash – one that could quickly escalate into open war.

Last month, at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conveyed the deep apprehension of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations about the potential for an armed conflict between China and the United States. The good news is that U.S. and Chinese representatives took the conference as an opportunity to signal subtly their willingness to ease tensions and continue to engage with each other.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, in an effort to limit the scope for provocation, called on all claimants to territories in the South China Sea to stop island-building and land-reclamation efforts there. He also proposed a regional security architecture that gives all countries and people in the Asia-Pacific region the "right to rise."

From China's side, Admiral Sun Jianguo, a deputy chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army, reiterated his country's commitment to resolving disputes through "peaceful negotiations, while preventing conflicts and confrontation." He added that all countries, big and small, have an equal right to participate in regional security affairs and share a responsibility to maintain regional stability.

But such mollifying rhetoric cannot obscure the defining role that great-power rivalry is playing in the South China Sea. China interprets U.S. intervention there as an explicit attempt to contain China by stoking conflict between it and its neighbors. The U.S. views China's maritime claims as an effort to challenge U.S. primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

In a sense, both countries have a point. China does aspire to be a maritime power, but its coasts are, to some extent, encircled by Japan and the Philippines, both U.S. allies, and Taiwan, with which the U.S. maintains security ties.

But strategic mistrust between China and the U.S. extends far beyond maritime issues. Despite troubling situations in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, America has remained focused on reshaping its hub-and-spoke alliances into a more networked security system across the Indo-Pacific theatre, capitalizing on the web of intra-Asian military ties among old allies and new partners such as India and Vietnam.

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