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Editorial: China-U.S. Strategic Game in the South China Sea with Asian Neighbors
By Zugui Gao Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
September 1, 2011

Source: http://www.chinareviewnews.com   2011-07-26 00:26:46  


As China's comprehensive strength and international status climb to a new height, the interaction between China and the world enters into a new phase and shows a new trend. The embodiment of this new trend is the major linkage among China, the United States and China's Asian neighbors.

For the United States and China, against a backdrop of emerging new changes on the status of the two countries, which are small but draw popular concerns, the U.S. strategic perception of China as a challenge and the possibility of a Sino-US conflict have increased; its China policy is changing from the previous emphasis on protecting against and drawing on China into today's approach of drawing on as well as containing China. The focus on containing China has intensified and the attention on the rapid development in China's defense modernization has increased, especially in the Navy, the Air Force and the networking area.

This understanding and policy trend held by the United States on the main contradictions of the Sino-U.S. relations suggest that these relations will enter into a period with multiple collisions, frictions, bumps, and continuous restructuring and reshaping. In order for the two respective countries and the regions to avoid the unbearable consequences of serious conflict, it is particularly important to ensure smooth strategic communications to prevent strategic misjudgment and to enhance the effectiveness of crisis management.

In fact, the heads of state of China and the U.S. exchanged visits and talked with each other in 2009 and 2011. They continue to confirm the positioning of China-U.S. relations; on the basis of their previously active, comprehensive and cooperative relations, they want to further confirm building a mutually respectful, beneficial and win-win partnership. This not only provides a specified direction to the development of the bilateral relations to build the top-level framework, but also inject new impetus. Moreover, this steers and makes way from the highest level for the stable development of the Sino-U.S. relations.

The China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue, as an important mechanism between China and the U.S. second only to summit diplomacy, has conducted three rounds of dialogue since its start in 2009. Its most prominent role is to turn the consensus reached by leaders into executable policy, to implement immediately the cooperation that both sides feel is realistically executable, to plan for cooperation that both sides feel may be implemented in the future, to communicate in a timely manner, to exchange views in depth, to accumulate and enhance mutual trust on issues where there are significant differences or even conflicts of interest between the two sides, in order to  prevent the ups and downs or even loss of control of the bilateral relations.

The Chinese and U.S. armed forces have made efforts to promote the establishment of a mutually respectful, cooperative and mutually beneficial new military relationship between them in the second decade of the 21st century. These start from the successful U.S. visit of Deputy Chief of Staff Bingde Chen, to the Shangri-La talks between the two countries’ defense ministers Guanglie Liang and Robert Gates, to the “satisfied” China visit of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. In short, all these efforts at all levels aim at helping to maintain stable Sino-U.S. relations and to gain gradual progress under stable conditions.

However, this is only one aspect of the Sino-U.S. relations. In another aspect, the United States, in facing the competitive pressure brought by China's rapid development, is actively seeking all kinds of support, ways and means to lower the cost of strengthening the vigilance and containment of China. The new changes in the relationships between China and its Asian neighbors provide opportunities and conditions for the U.S. to achieve this intent.

Similarly, the relationships of China with the neighboring countries also experience a more difficult transition and reshaping. On the one hand, after China’s 30 years of reform and opening up, China and its neighboring countries continue to strengthen regional and sub-regional cooperation, especially in the last 20 years. Their communications and connections continue to strengthen. China's relationships with its Asian neighbors have been enhanced comprehensively in politics, economics, humanities, social affairs, etc. This is the main aspect of China's relationships with its Asian neighbors.

At the same time, the Asian neighbors, particularly those that have various disputes and differences with China about territory or territorial waters, have increasingly felt that the time to resolve these disputes is not on their side. Therefore, their crisis awareness, anxiety and sense of urgency for resolving these disputes have significantly increased. Their state of mind has become more and more complex. Their alertness and caution with respect to China, and containment of China have apparently increased significantly.

Some countries take advantage of the dispute with China due to the needs of their domestic political struggles and even at the expense of damaging the expanding common interests and good relations with China. While continuing to strengthen cooperation with China, they draw on outside help to resolve disputes in order to increase bargaining power with China. They increasingly turn to extra-regional forces for support as a counterbalance to China. The many public statements made by Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew asking the United States to keep its Asia-Pacific presence to counter China are a typical example.

This makes the relationships between China and its neighboring countries become more complex and sensitive. Their political and security differences, frictions, confrontations, collisions, etc., show marked increase and the negative factors, uncertainties and risks in their mutual interactions also increase. If not handled properly, this situation is likely to deteriorate further or even lead to serious conflict.

The strategic needs of the neighboring countries in anxiously drawing on outside help are exactly the same as the strategic needs of the U.S. seeking an opportunity to re-strengthen its leadership in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthening the China containment. The U.S. takes this as an opportunity and makes use of the contradictions, differences and fissures in the relationships between China and its neighboring countries. So as not to use too many "hard power resources," the U.S. fully mobilizes its "soft power resources" and promotes the "smart power" diplomacy. This includes the use of three "important tools" (including reshaping and strengthening the traditional alliances with Japan, Korea, Australia, etc., forming "new partner" relationships with Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, etc., and expanding its participation in the regional mechanisms like the East Asia Summit, the Trans-Pacific Strategic for Economic Partnership Agreements (TPP)). The U.S. also uses a variety of contingencies to step up the strategy of the so-called "forward deployment diplomacy." A series of speeches made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and other senior officials all fully demonstrated this point.

China's neighboring countries, under direct or indirect, overt or covert U.S. instigation and support, have the courage to propagandize, challenge and bargain with China. While continuing to hit the limits of China’s policy, they gain more practical interests, bargaining chips and psychological advantages. This has no doubt created challenges to China's strategic awareness and policy practice.

The situations in the South China Sea at present as well as during the past two years are the focus and concentrated reflection of all the above-mentioned development of the game. Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. are eager to draw on help from the U.S., Japan, Australia, India and other countries in politics, economy, military and diplomacy to gain greater benefits in the South China Sea. They want to expand the play to their own advantage against China, but at the same time exercise restraint so as not to cause outbreak of serious conflict with China and damage their other interests with China. The U.S. uses the highlighted differences and frictions between China and the relevant countries on the South China Sea issue and expands its intervention through diplomatic position, joint military exercise, limited economic and trade support, military aid and other means. The U.S. tries to become the arbitrator sought by various parties through enhancing its voice and influence.  These strategies contain China, gain more interests from China as extortion, but also turn countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines into pawns on the chessboard of the Asia-Pacific strategy for the U.S. to grab more benefits. In short, they maximize the U.S. interests but also try to exercise restraint to avoid serious conflict breaking out with China and damaging other more significant interests with China.

For China, as long as the country firmly maintains the current positive trend of development to enhance its comprehensive strength, time is on its side. If the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) further expands common interests and concerns on various problems including the South China Sea issue and tries to prevent the escalation and expansion of conflicts of interest, it is possible to compress the space that can be used by the U.S.; if China can expand the common ground with the U.S. on other more important topics of interests, it is possible to press the U.S. for restraint on the South China Sea and other issues. During July 19-23, the game played in Bali, Indonesia, among the ASEAN nations, China, the U.S. and other parties surrounding the South China Sea and other issues, in particular the agreement reached on the Guidelines on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and its effect, seem to have shown this development trend.


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Dr. Gao Zugui is Professor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies of the Central Party School. His research areas are international strategy and security, China's national security strategy, China's foreign strategy, the U.S. relationship with the Islamic world, the Middle East issues, etc. He has participated in projects related to China's peaceful development road, a harmonious world, the national image, the national soft power, the party's image, and international standards of social responsibility.
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