Global Viewpoint

How China and the US can avoid a catastrophic clash

By provoking US allies, Beijing is forcing Washington to choose between abandoning its friends or going to war with China. Both believe the other will back down. But there is a high chance that they are both wrong. America’s best move then is to change the game in Asia, by offering to share power if China behaves responsibly.

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    A Chinese coast guard vessel fires a water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel off the coast of Vietnam on May 4, after China deployed an oil rig in disputed South China Sea waters. Op-ed contributor Hugh White writes: '[Leaders in Beijing] know that America’s position in Asia is built on its network of alliances and partnerships with many of China’s neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. And they believe that weakening these relationships is the easiest way to weaken US regional power.'
    Vietnam Coast Guard/AP
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Many find it hard to understand why China is acting so aggressively in regard to its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. What do leaders in Beijing hope to achieve by alienating its neighbors and undermining regional stability?

Their reasoning is actually simple enough. China wants to wield much more power and influence in Asia than it has for the past few centuries. And for China to have more power, the United States must have less.

They know that America’s position in Asia is built on its network of alliances and partnerships with many of China’s neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. And they believe that weakening these relationships is the easiest way to weaken US regional power.

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They also know that, beneath the flowery diplomatic phrases, the bedrock of these alliances and partnerships is the confidence America’s Asian friends have that the US is able and willing to protect them from China’s power. So the easiest way for Beijing to weaken Washington’s power in Asia is to undermine this confidence.

By using direct, armed pressure in these disputes, China makes its neighbors more eager for US military support, and at the same time makes America less willing to give it, because of the clear risk of a direct US-China clash. In other words, by confronting America’s friends with force, China confronts America with the choice between deserting its friends and fighting China. 

Beijing is betting that, faced with this choice, America will back off and leave its allies and friends unsupported. This will weaken America’s alliances and partnerships, undermine US power in Asia, and enhance China’s power.

China will continue to call Obama’s bluff

Ever since President Obama announced the “pivot” to Asia, China has tested US willingness to support its allies over the Scarborough Shoal and Senkaku/Diaoyu Island disputes. Until his Asian trip in April, Mr. Obama seemed inclined to step back from America’s commitments, but his bold words in Tokyo and Manila suggest he has recovered his resolve to stand firm.

Now we can expect China to test this newly recovered resolve by applying more pressure. And that is what Beijing is doing today in the waters off Vietnam. It is calling Obama’s bluff.

Of course, this carries risks for China. It does not want to fight America, so it must be confident in the judgment that America will back down and desert its friends rather than engage in conflict with China. This confidence reflects two key judgments by China’s leaders.

Why China thinks it has the upper hand

First, they believe that China’s new military capabilities can deny America an easy victory in a maritime clash in the East Asian waters. They also know that the US cannot prevail in those waters without launching a major campaign against Chinese territory. Such strikes would obviously risk a major escalation, which might not stop below the nuclear threshold. So China’s leaders think their US counterparts understand that a war with China today is one that America could not be confident of either winning or limiting.

Second, Beijing believes the balance of resolve is on China’s side. Washington clearly wants to preserve its role in Asia, but Beijing is even more determined to win power at America’s expense. That makes the Chinese confident that US leaders will not assume that China would back down first in a crisis.

A dangerous calculation

Unfortunately, the consensus in Washington is that Beijing is not really serious about challenging US leadership in Asia because it is not willing to risk a confrontation with America that it would assuredly lose. If they are right, then China’s conduct is clearly foolish. But I’m pretty sure it’s not.

Both Washington and China are steadily upping the stakes in their rivalry as China’s provocations of US friends and allies become more flagrant and America’s commitments to support them become more categorical. Both believe they can do this with impunity because both believe the other will back down to avoid a clash. But there is a disconcertingly high chance that they are both wrong. 

Power sharing to avert disaster

Fortunately, there’s another option: America and China could find a way to share power in Asia. This would be hard for both sides, but it could happen if both sides realize that they cannot dominate Asia in opposition to the other.

Of course, America has never done such a thing before. But America has never before dealt with a country as rich and powerful as China is likely to be. How can America not share power with China if it wants to stay in Asia and avoid escalating rivalry with this formidable country?

America’s best move then is to change the game in Asia, by offering to share power if China behaves responsibly. Initiating and solidifying such a power-sharing relationship would require real statesmanship from America’s leaders. China would have to accept a continuing strong US presence in Asia and abide by basic norms such as not using force against its neighbors. And America would have to treat China as an equal, allowing full weight to China’s interests as China sees them, and no longer assume the status of regional leader.

We can’t be sure exactly what power sharing with China would look like, how exactly this relationship would work, or even whether it would work. But we can be sure that the only likely alternative would lead to disaster.

Hugh White is a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University and author of “The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power.” A version of this article appears in The Interpreter, the journal of the Lowy Institute in Australia. It comes to the Monitor via The WorldPost/Global Viewpoint Network, distributed by Tribune Content Agency LLC.

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