The Tipping Point: Has the U.S.-China Relationship Passed the Point of No Return?

October 26, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia-Pacific Tags: ChinaUnited StatesNew U.S. Naval Strategy

The Tipping Point: Has the U.S.-China Relationship Passed the Point of No Return?

The geopolitical power struggle between China and the United States will almost certainly be decided in the South China Sea.

Conflict between a rising power and an established power is not inevitable as most realist scholars suggest. However, in every relationship, there is a tipping point or a point of no return, and China and the United States are rapidly approaching this point. As traditional diplomatic outlets have done little to resolve the more challenging issues presently affecting the Sino-American relationship, these two great powers have been increasingly relying on their military capabilities and hard power tactics. That’s especially true in the South China Sea, which is one of the single greatest points of contention between China and the United States. While there is a realization on both sides of the Pacific that a kind of strategic stability is necessary to prevent great power conflict, both China and the United States remain unwilling to compromise and make the kind of meaningful concessions required to move the relationship further from confrontation and conflict and closer to cooperation and rapprochement. Instead, these two countries are drawing lines in the sand and preparing for the worst.

Failed pursuit of strategic stability

China’s proposed solution to the Sino-American strategic stability issue is the “new model of major-country relations,” which encourages the United States and China to avoid confrontation and conflict, respect one another’s political systems and national interests—specifically China’s core interests—and pursue win-win cooperation. China is exceptionally enthusiastic about this proposal and brings it up at every high-level Sino-American meeting. Chinese enthusiasm for the “new model of major-country relations” can be explained in a number of different ways. American acceptance of China’s proposal would facilitate Beijing’s rise, legitimize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a leader for national strength and revival and reduce the likelihood of American containment. As acceptance of the “new model of major-country relations” would create an international environment conducive to China’s rise, it would essentially allow China to become the preeminent power in Asia without great power competition or conflict. This proposal also has the potential to put China on par with the United States, to elevate it to an equal status, one acknowledged by the United States. Not only would American recognition of China’s strength and power have effects abroad, but it would also stoke Chinese nationalism and strengthen CCP leadership at home. Furthermore, this new model is a means of establishing a new code of conduct for the Sino-American relationship that is more in line with Chinese national interests, opening the door for the creation of a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia and, potentially, a Sino-centric regional order.

Prior to the recent meeting between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, Xi announced that China’s proposed “new model of major-country-relations” would be an important discussion point for the meeting, but, while this proposal was brought up during the meeting, no clear progress was made. Because U.S. leaders believe that the “new model of major-country relations” is not in America’s best interests, the United States has repeatedly dismissed China’s proposal. As the hegemonic power, the United States maintains its power by dominating global politics; to accept a geopolitical framework alternative proposed by a strategic rival requires sacrificing a certain amount of power and influence. Along those same lines, acceptance of China’s proposal might give other states in the international system the impression that the United States is in decline and on the losing end of the classic “Thucydides trap.” Outside of traditional power politics, the call for the United States to respect China’s “core interests”— as many Chinese and foreign scholars have noted—is a loaded statement. While the United States is not opposed to respecting a state’s national interests, it tends to be unwilling to respect national interests which are highly contested, which is the situation for the majority of China’s “core interests.” In addition to traditional Chinese national interests, such as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, China’s “core interests” also cover most of its territorial claims in Asia. The United States is concerned that China’s “new model of major-country relations” is a ploy designed to trick the United States into acknowledging China’s extensive territorial claims and undercutting the interests of American allies and long-time strategic partners in the Asia-Pacific region, which would likely result in the weakening of the American-led “hub-and-spoke” security structure, a security framework China hopes to replace with its New Asian Security Concept. There are also suspicions in the United States that China’s proposal is a call for the creation of spheres of influence, a concept to which the Obama administration has been consistently opposed.

America’s approach to Sino-American strategic stability is to have China and the United States focus on cooperation and agree to avoid letting competition in one area affect cooperation and collaboration in others. In many ways, this resembles China’s old “shelving disputes and pursuing joint development” strategy for Asia. As this kind of strategy is the geopolitical equivalent of sweeping dirt under the rug, it is only effective to a point. Eventually, the dirt spills out. Sooner or later, unaddressed problems surface. At best, this approach is only a temporary stop on the road to functional strategic stability. At worst, this approach has already outlived its usefulness. China views this strategy as an attempt by the United States to avoid addressing China’s demands that the United States acknowledge China’s rise to great power status and redefine the relationship accordingly, which only encourages the already strong Chinese desire to push forward the “new model of major-country relations.” China and the United States are at an impasse regarding strategic stability. While both states have made commitments and promises to prevent great power conflict, neither China nor the United States has developed a reasonable or implementable solution for Sino-American strategic stability. Thus, competition continues unmanaged, unchecked and confrontation is steadily evolving into conflict.