America and China Should Avoid Igniting World War III over Rocks and Reefs

A Chinese general officer visiting Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Flickr/Department of Defense

Asia-Pacific regional security may hinge on Beijing's ability to clarify and reform its U-shaped claim in the South China Sea.

Americans will do well to keep in mind during the next week that global summit meetings are not sporting matches. We should not judge the success or failure of the effort by the kind of apparatus employed to help the Chinese president deplane from his aircraft, nor by some pithy line delivered at a post-summit press conference like a bank shot at the buzzer. Equally troubling is the intensifying blurring of domestic political conspiracy theories with great-power politics. Such stories may titillate journalists and readers alike, but they also contribute to the current world disorder and could lead indirectly to catastrophe.

It is no exaggeration to say the weight of the world is on the shoulders of the two most important world leaders gathering at Mar-a-Lago at the end of this week. Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping must endeavor to keep the world economy on a positive track. Also, they may discuss certain (often overlooked) initiatives vital to maintaining global order, such as United Nations peacekeeping. The critical climate change issue, a major feature of recent U.S.-China summits and bilateral negotiations, is not likely to make it onto the agenda this time for obvious reasons. Major points of tension—which include the South China Sea and the fraught Taiwan issue—could easily scuttle any chance to build a genuine working relationship between the two “political strong men.”

But far and away the most important issue before the two leaders is that of North Korea, and this is as it should be, because the crisis on the peninsula has reached an exceedingly delicate point. It will be essential for the two leaders to move briskly away from the customary blame game that has characterized U.S.-China interaction on the issue for more than a decade. Washington, DC blames Beijing for not using its obvious influence to restrain Pyongyang. Meanwhile, Beijing complains that Washington’s continuous military pressure against Pyongyang is the root of the problem. Both critiques actually have considerable merit. Some ideas are presented at the conclusion of this essay for breaking that particular impasse among others.

However, the main contribution of this pre-summit edition of Dragon Eye will be to make a quick, preliminary survey of Mandarin-language assessments from among a few of China’s up and coming “America hands”[ 美国通]. For instance, The Chinese Journal of American Studies [美国研究] devoted a special issue to the theme of Donald Trump’s election victory with the lead article written by Da Wei [达巍], director of the American Studies Center at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations [中国现代国际关系研究院]. Da’s appraisal is quite balanced: “Trump, on the one hand continuously attacks China . . .  but on the other hand has expressed a willingness to make deals with China.” After all, he is a businessman [商人] “with ample experience of negotiations and quite accustomed to using “psychological pressure” and strategically employing both “surprise” and “uncertainty.” In general, Da evaluates that Trump’s business mind will be looking for a China policy that is both “low cost and high payoff” [低成本高收益]. Da comes close to endorsing the common charge in the United States that China is insufficiently open to U.S. investment.

Continuing in a rather optimistic tone, Da cites numerous problems with the U.S. “rebalance,” including that the planned naval buildup will take many years. He additionally observes that Trump was widely criticized in the United States for his phone call with the Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen from early December. Da explains the hope among Chinese strategists that the Middle East will be the main focus of Trump’s strategy rather than the Asia-Pacific region. Ultimately, Da seems to expect increasing economic frictions, but suggests this could also be accompanied by a decreasing of ideological and geopolitical tensions. Still, there are major concerns articulated here, including the lack of China expertise in the senior ranks of the new administration. Da explains that policy could be “kidnapped” [绑架] by a small group of ideologues with little or no experience of policymaking in the complex Asia-Pacific context. At the conclusion of the piece, Da warns that Beijing must be ready to “retaliate” [回击], responding “action for action” [行动对行动] to any steps by the Trump administration that harm China’s interests. Still, Da ends the piece by calling for an expanded basis for U.S.-China cooperation and warning Beijing against “getting trapped in an arms race.”