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Realistic expectations must guide China-US relations

Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of modern China, said that “the China-US relationship can never be too good or too bad”, meaning their leaders and people should be realistic about how close their bilateral relationship can be at any given point in time, and they should never let their disagreements get so out of hand that it threatens the general peace and prosperity of the two nations. While seemingly simplistic, the quote does accurately encapsulate the general nature of relations between the two nations since Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong commenced the modern bilateral relationship in 1972.

While China recognises America’s unique position as the world’s sole superpower, its political orientation and national pride dictate that it pursues its own political and developmental path, and an independent foreign policy that it believes is ultimately aimed at achieving peace – with its neighbours and the world.

Many countries in Asia, and the world, are highly sceptical about this so-called “peaceful development”, pointing to China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea as contrary to that objective. In spite of the recent ruling at The Hague against China, the Chinese government, and most of its people, believe that the country’s actions are consistent with both recent regional history and international law, based on their own unique perspective of history and international relations.

Part of the reason for the vastly different perspectives on this issue has to do with a genuine belief on the part of both sides that each is right. China points to previous maps and maritime practices, which were at the time unopposed by other nations. The US (and other nations) see this as inconsistent with modern international maritime law as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which, ironically, China has signed and ratified while the US has not.

From the Chinese perspective, the Thucydides Trap – wherein a rising power causes fear in an established power, which escalates towards war – is not inevitable, because China views itself and the United States as “different, but not distant”, and because Confucian philosophy advocates “accommodating divergent views” (he er bu tong). President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that “the broad Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both China and the US”, and proposed a new model of international relations aimed at avoiding confrontation and conflict, respecting one another’s political systems and national interests, and pursuing win-win cooperation.

That all sounds good on paper. The question becomes whether and how Confucian philosophy may become more consistent with current international law, whether both sides can reach an understanding about how China’s rise may coincide with America’s gradual decline as a global power, and how China’s neighbours see ongoing territorial issues. We stand at a critical juncture – given The Hague ruling, China’s decision to continue what it is doing in the South China Sea, and uncertainty about how other regional powers may react in the future. Therefore, much will depend on how far all sides are willing to reach across the table and genuinely compromise.

China’s dual strategy of claiming to want to pursue diplomatic negotiations on the South China Sea dispute, while simultaneously continuing its unilateral construction activities on its islands, creates an environment not conducive to honest and meaningful negotiation. It remains too early to say how well the talks may develop, with the Philippines or any other party to the dispute.

It is our hope that Chinese leaders and people will continue to maintain equilibrium between themselves, their neighbours and the US. Whoever takes over the reins in the White House, maintaining balance with China should remain a priority, in spite of any rhetoric or vitriol that has accompanied the presidential election race.

Sino-US relations will remain the world’s most important bilateral relationship for many years to come, with implications for the entire world. At the end of the day, the Chinese and American people have much more to gain by maintaining a friendly and cooperative relationship with each other, than the other way around.

It is worth remembering that, in his wisdom more than 200 years ago (when China was the world’s largest economy), George Washington said: “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.” Those are words to the wise today on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
It is also worth pointing out that, in Chinese, the Pacific Ocean (tai ping yang) means “an ocean of peace”. It will clearly take a great degree of wisdom, an appreciation of history, and a willingness to compromise on all sides, to maintain peace in the ocean of peace.

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