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How To Avoid A Sino-American War

By: Minghao Zhao


Philippine Daily Inquirer
11:18 PM June 14th, 2015

BEIJINGIn a few weeks, senior US and Chinese leaders will


meet 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 US 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, will almost certainly lead to an armed clashone that
can 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 Association of Southeast
Asian Nations about the potential for an armed conflict between
China and America. The good news is that US and Chinese
representatives took the conference as an opportunity to subtly
signal their willingness to ease tensions and continue to engage
with each other.
US Defense Secretary 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 landreclamation efforts there. He also proposed a regional security
architecture that gives all countries and people in the AsiaPacific the right to rise.

From Chinas side, Adm. Sun Jianguo, a deputy chief of staff of


the Peoples Liberation Army, reiterated his countrys
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
take part 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 US intervention there as an explicit attempt to
contain China by stoking conflict between it and its neighbors.
America views Chinas maritime claims as an effort to challenge
US primacy in the Asia-Pacific.
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 US allies, and Taiwan, with
which America maintains security ties.
But strategic mistrust between the two countries 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 theater,
capitalizing on the web of intra-Asian military ties among old
allies and new partners such as India and Vietnam.
In particular, the US-Japan alliance is undergoing historic
transformation, with renewed guidelines for defense cooperation
that allow for greater Japanese autonomy in security affairs
and that present China as the main adversary. Add to that the

potential deployment of a US-led missile-defense system in


South Korea and the prospect of a US military presence in
Vietnam, and it is not difficult to understand Chinas anxiety.
America is putting economic pressure on China as wellat a
time, no less, when China is struggling to implement risky
domestic reforms amid slowing growth. America recently
attempted to block the establishment of the China-led Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank, and then to stop its allies from
joining.
Moreover, by repeatedly calling the proposed Trans-Pacific
Partnership a strategic project, it has politicized the trade
deal, which, as the economist Arvind Subramanian has pointed
out, will place Chinese firms at a disadvantage in the US and
Asian markets. This effort undoubtedly deserves to be described
as containment.
For Chinese policymakers, America is not the status-quo power
it claims to be. In the face of US attempts to reshuffle regional
security and economic arrangements, China feels that it has no
choice but to prepare for worst-case scenariosan approach
reflected in Chinese President Xi Jinpings bottom-line
concept.
With a new round of policy debate about China unfolding in
America, tensions may be about to increase. Most US
strategists are not only pessimistic about the future of the
bilateral relationship; they also identify China as a potent
threat to Americas role in Asia.
A recent report for the relatively moderate Council on Foreign
Relations states that Americas effort to integrate China into

the liberal international order has generated new threats not


only to US primacy in Asia but also to US global power. Given
this, the reports authors
argue, America needs a new grand strategy toward China that
focuses on balancingrather than supportingits ascendancy.
Michael Swaine, a seasoned Asian security expert at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also doubts the
sustainability of US primacy in the Asia-Pacific in the coming
decades. He advocates a less antagonistic strategy: a multistage
process of mutual accommodation to create a more stable
regional power balance between America and China.
Ensuring stable peace and continued prosperity in the AsiaPacific will require both countries to replace their self-serving
interpretations of the others strategic intentions with more
sober assessments. In the short term, that means recognizing
that the challenge of navigating complex maritime issues
involving so many ambitious regional players must be
addressed in a pragmatic and cooperative manner.
By activating top-level diplomacy, building strong crisismanagement mechanisms, and enriching the rules of
engagement in the South China Sea, a Sino-American war can
be avoided. Given the vast damage that such a conflict can
cause, this approach is less an option than a necessity. Project
Syndicate
Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute in
Beijing, an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for
Financial Studies at

Renmin University of China, and a member of the China


National Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in
the Asia Pacific.