US-China relations in the 21st century

Joseph Nye in an Oped published in today’s New York Times has offered the sensible advice to US policy makers not to treat China as an enemy, similar to the policy followed toward the former Soviet Union during the cold war era. The two situations are different. He has correctly pointed out that both countries will gain through developing friendly and cooperative relations rather than developing mutual antagonism. The apprehension has already been aroused in some circles in Beijing that the US intentions towards the former are not benign. One example noted by the Chinese is the encouragement being offered by the US to India to act as a counterweight to China.

It is well known that China is the largest holder of US treasury bonds and therefore a major creditor. Those analysts in the US who recommend a policy of containing China tend to downplay this hard economic reality. There would be huge global turbulence if the Chinese decide to call in the loans advanced to the US or refuse to advance further loans to the debtor. Also If the US ” pivot” toward Asia is interpreted in Beijing as an attempt to curb China’s inevitable political and military clout, this would not bode well for the much needed equilibrium between the nations of South East Asia.

China and Japan are already embroiled in a territorial dispute over some small islands in the South China Sea. A recent statement by the outgoing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton supporting the Japanese claim was sharply criticized by the Chinese leadership. The US needs to be more circumspect in its pronouncements on this issue. It would seem that a better approach for the US would be to play a behind the scenes role in counseling moderation and restraint on both protagonists. The recent visit of a senior Japanese politician to Beijing carrying a letter from the Japanese Prime Minister for his Chinese counterpart was good diplomacy. Subsequent statements by the Chinese have revealed that they also wish to tamp down this conflict rather than exacerbating it. This turn of events is good for Chinese – Japanese relations. It could be the forerunner of reducing tensions over other disputed islands in the South China Sea between some of the littoral states.

The US should play an emollient role here, which would serve its long term interests better than fishing in the troubled waters of the South China Sea. Having realized that the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly in terms of blood and treasure, this is not the time to seek an aggressive military footprint in South East Asia. Nye is right on the button when he concludes his Oped by suggesting, “containment is simply not a relevant policy tool for dealing with a rising China. Power is the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants and sometimes America’s power is greater when we act with others rather than merely over others.”


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