China, US must strive to avoid conflict

By Li Yincai Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/12 18:03:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Recently, there are signs that the US is showing a tough attitude toward China. The US plans to sell Taiwan $1.42 billion in arms, and impose sanctions against two Chinese citizens and a shipping company over allegations of illegal transactions with North Korea. Washington also accused the Bank of Dandong of laundering money for Pyongyang. On July 1, US missile destroyer USS Stethem trespassed in China's territorial waters off the Xisha Islands, challenging the territorial sovereignty of China.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump had their first meeting in April, the two major powers agreed to a "100-day plan" that aims to improve economic ties. As the plan wraps up, bilateral relations will have new fluctuations.

The Trump administration undoubtedly holds the initiative in China-US relations, which is mainly rooted in the power gap between the two sides. The gap has greatly narrowed since the 1990s, but Beijing still can't catch up with Washington considering the influence and strength of the US, especially in economics, politics and the military.

Trump has several levers to push, like trade, human rights, China's domestic issues and its relations with neighboring countries.

Facing huge trade deficits with China, Trump may treat economic and trade issues with a particularly tough attitude, imposing high tariffs on some products or labeling China as a currency manipulator.

Before Trump moved into the Oval Office, China and the US had engaged in a "war of words." The tirades against China during Trump's campaign mostly turned out to be empty talk. But with the end of the 100-day program, the honeymoon period for China and the US, featuring words rather than action or mutual respect, may come to an end. Washington will exert more pressure on China in many fields.

Trump's team, despite a constant stream of negative news, is gradually consolidating its grip on power. Constant stories about his Russia connections are beginning to sound like background noise. That gives the government more space to deal with China issues where the Republican and Democratic parties have consensus.

China and the US have many conflicts, but there are possible areas for cooperation in economy and trade. This is especially true in light of Trump's business background. However, both sides have little room for negotiation in the security arena.

US military policymakers have begun to adopt a unified opinion after the end of Obama's administration: China is using its accumulated resources from its 30 years of rapid economic development to reconstruct the Asian power structure, challenging the status and interests of the US.

The heated discussion of the "Thucydides's trap" theory about rising and established powers going to war shows the anxiety of the US strategic community.

During the 100-day plan, the Trump administration attempted to use the North Korean nuclear issue as a bargaining chip, pushing Beijing to place heavier pressure on North Korea in exchange for Washington's compromise in areas such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.

However, it is clearly difficult. First, China is unable to bear the serious consequences of the collapse of the North Korean regime, so it can't fully meet the requirements of the US. Second, China has less influence on North Korea than the US hoped; the Kim Jong-un regime can not only mobilize its people to save resources for their country, but can also get alternative resources from Russia. Third, the US insists on deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, which was contradictory to its peninsula policy. China is faced with an awkward situation with deteriorating relations with both North and South Korea after cooperating with America's policy.

China and the US have strengthened cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue, but the room for cooperation is limited. Once this limited space is exhausted, the conflict over other security issues that has been temporarily delayed may eventually break out. 

Due to the size of the two countries and the serious risks involved, conflicts between the US and China in the security and political fields will remain mild and generally controllable. For example, arms sales to Taiwan will be limited to defensive weapons and when warships encounter each other in the South China Sea, both sides will abide by international laws. But considering the current situation, the relationship between China and the US will not remain smooth in the coming years. The power shift in Asia will always cast a shadow of conflicts.

The author is an assistant research fellow from the Institute of International Relations at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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