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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2014 > January 2014 > Geo-Strategic Challenges in the United States and China Relationship

Geo-Strategic Challenges in the United States and China Relationship

Wednesday 1 January 2014, by Donald Cuccioletta

Current Sino-U.S. relations seem to be, as we progress into the second decade of the 21st century, in a holding pattern. This state of affairs leads some observers to believe, that this relationship is in a state of limbo while others believe, because of the lack of a clear definition of this relationship, that we are heading towards a “Quasi Cold War “ senario. One of the major proponents of this Cold War scenario is Liu Jianhua, who postulates that this geo-strategic confrontation is based on, what he calls “a growing strategic suspicion between the two major powers of the world”. As we can surmise, in this relationship there seems to be a lot more suspicion than trust.

The element that triggered and eventually shifted the relationship towards a climate of mistrust was the announcement by the Obama administration in defining the United States as an Asian-Pacific hegemonic nation, with a long historical presence in that part of the world. This announcement was interpreted by the Chinese foreign ministry, and the new president of Xi Xiping, as a warning that the United States, would remain an uncontested Asian nation that it would continue to be fully engaged in the region and as in the past, fulfill its commitments to its Asian allies. Most observers around the world, named this policy, Obama’s “Asian Pivot”. In other words, it was a reaffirmation by the United States, that the U.S. role in the Asian Pacific zone and in particular in South-east Asia would remain crucial and central to American foreign policy. This announcement by Obama was also a message signaling to Beijing, that they were in the eye of Washington.

Another trigger that made the western world and in particular the United States to become more incisive in its presence, is the assessment of China’s present power status. This assessment is based on the concern with the speed of “China’s Rise”. China’s new direction taken in the late 1970’s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, placed more emphasis on a rapid economic rise and the rejection of the revolutionary program of the Maoist period based on social measures. China had now turned towards capitalism as the way to enrich and solidify its political institutions. Socialism with Chinese characteristics became the buzzword for State Capitalism, with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) remaining the dominant watchdog against any dissenters who dared deviate from the new party line.

Besides enriching the country, there lurked behind this new economic policy, a new foreign policy to elevate China to the status of major power. In order to attain this new objective, would require China to also raise its presence as a new economic power on the international scene. This approach has, within the last 20 years, brought China to a level of an economic superpower around the world. In other words, in order to re-enforce a new foreign policy, China would have to construction an economic policy that would help penetrate new foreign markets and solidify diplomatic ties.

Hence China now sees the world as an open supermarket. China, with accumulated wealth from a controlled authoritarian state-capitalism, can now compete with United States and buy up necessary natural resources around the world. This is being done while avoiding any critical stance to be taken on human rights, democracy, minority rights etc. This added economic momentum, has lead to China’s growing impact on the world. All this has been done in a very short time and framework.

China’s rapid “Rise” therefore has precipitated a different approach from the U.S. But it has also precipitated a raging debate within intellectual and academic circles throughout China. What does it mean to be a major power with a new power status in our present world? Some believe the need to promote future economic growth to advance China’s power status. Others meanwhile look to the differences in the military gap between China and the United States. While others believe that China must find the genesis of its new power status within its long and complicated history.

The growing military presence of the United States in Asia, has even pushed certain researchers in China to speculate on an accelerated pace for China to become a second tier super power by 2020. When we read the different views among Chinese researchers, we can observe the uneasiness with which the debate, as to superpower status of China, has monopolized the relationship with the United States.

The announcement of the “Asia Pivot” was not just a shift in diplomatic policy, but one that involved concrete practical decisions that would eventually promote a US military and physical presence in South East Asia and Asia in general. For many in China, China’s rise has made the US fearful and suspicious of China’s “negative” influences in the region. This has led many important international relations specialists, such as Dr. Yan Xuetong to point out to many of the maneuvers made by the United States since Obama’s “Asian Pivot”.

China suspects that the U.S. is trying to impede China’s rise through the following: controlling weapons and high-tech exports to China: continuous arms shipments to Taiwan: disturbing any form of East-Asian co-operation: getting involved in maritime disputes in the South China seas: demanding the depreciation of the RMB: and building up an ABM defense system. We can also observe a form of political containment of China.

After the retreat from Afghanistan, the US will leave in place some troops to support a friendly regime. India, now an important ally of the United States, has already received under the presidency of George W. Bush, 21st century nuclear technology. Two marine bases have been deployed in Australia. Pakistan has been given the role of pacifier of the Taliban in the eventual new Afghan government. Vietnam now has a free trade deal with the United States. Japan, under a conservative government is now rearming with the help of the US and has accepted the placement of a drone base on their territory. South Korea remains steadfast in its support of the United States. And of course Taiwan remains firmly in the US camp. China cannot but be concerned when it sees all these developments in the continent and around their borders.

Contrary to popular belief that the eventual confrontation between Chinese interests and United Sates interests will occur in Asia and more specifically in South East Asia, Africa has all ready become in many observer’s eyes the continent of confrontation. As stated by Simon Tisdall, journalist of The Guardian and quoted by Liu Jianhua , “In Africa, fierce contests between China and the U.S. for materials, economic resources, political influences and military strongholds are being held in the in Sub-Sahara Africa. Natural resources, whether oil, uranium, copper, zinc and even “Rare earth” are at the heart of this confrontation.”

The discussion on how to expand for Chinese interests in Africa, has reached a high level of debate. The questions surrounding “African Integration and Unification” are part of the reexamining of Chinese intervention in Africa. International criticisms from NGOs on the ground, concerning China’s complete abstraction of the immense poverty in African, the refusal to criticize the dictatorial rulers it deals with, the importing of Chinese workers rather than hiring local workers for construction and mining projects, on the premise that local workers are not reliable, have all made certain elements of Chinese elite reflect. While other intellectuals deny any allusions towards a Chinese neo-colonial policy in Africa. While glorifying the rapidity of China’s “Rise” in becoming a major power, China still remains deficient in understanding its responsible role in avoiding a new form of neo-colonialism, especially in Africa.

The hit spot in this uneasy relationship remains South East Asia and in particular the South China Sea. The South China Sea because of China’s “Rise” has become in the last 10 years the most important shipping corridor in the world. 75% of the world shipping trade goes through the channels of the South China Sea. This links the eastern seaboard of China, where the important economic cities are situated, to Indochina, India, Pakistan, Australia, Eastern Africa, South Africa, the Arab and Gulf Sates, Iran and points West. This vital economic and trade corridor has led China to build in Pakistan a deepwater port for commercial shipping. Of course for the United States this deep water port in Pakistan can be easily used for Chinese naval vessels patrolling the South China seas. Another reason for US interest to keep Pakistan among its circle of allies, uneasy allies, but nevertheless allies. The return of the US navy to Subic Bay in the Philippine’s, at the bequest of the Philippine government is not simply coincidental.

The US support of Japan in its dispute with China over the Diaoyu Islands has pushed China to declare around this area a restricted fly zone, under Chinese surveillance. The US has responded by sending in two unarmed B 52’s that surprised China and did not command an immediate response. Subsequently a few days later China sent in two fighter jets to signified that it would no longer tolerate any presence in this restricted fly zone.

China remains hostile to Japan on the question of the Islands, which it considers part of China. This reminds them of the Taiwan situation, which they deem is similar. Nationalist feelings have risen in China over the rise of Japanese presence in the South China sea. Japan as we know has now taken a more offensive stance with its defense forces in the area.

These are some of the recent incidences that have precipitated the visits of Vice-President Joe Biden to try to deflate some of the volatile rhetoric coming out of the foreign ministry and the PLO (People’s Liberation Army). Of course China’s has not remained inactive during this recent tug of war that has been going on in the last few weeks. China and its President Xi Xiping did not waste any time in solidify relations, economic and political with Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and even the Philippines, in the absence of President Obama at the Asian-Pacific conference due to the government shut down crisis.

The United States and China are now maneuvering on the geo-strategic chessboard, which at times can lead to stressful and difficult exchanges. But this resembles, in my humbled opinion, the beginning of a heavyweight championship fight, where the two pugilists in the first few rounds try to feel each other out. Every boxing match can either end up in a knock out win, which could mean war, or a unanimous or split decision, which means the economic or political confrontation continues or even a draw, which could led to a realization that these two major powers must find ways to restore a relationship that can lead to a more multilateral approach to the world of the 21st century.

Donald Cuccioletta Ph.D. Professor of History, Université du Québec en Outaouais
(And was visiting professor (September-October 2013) in the International Relations department at Tsinghua University, Beijing.