Unlikely that new model of US-China ties will work

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping head for their bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7, 2013.

At their summit at Sunnylands, California, in June last year, China's President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama agreed that the two countries should construct a "new model of major country relations".

US Secretary of State John Kerry recently said he believed that the relationship should be based on two critical elements: practical cooperation and constructive management of differences.

The first is deceptively easy. After all, there are several "low hanging fruit" issues that the two can cooperate on in their own ways.

Climate change, North Korea and anti-piracy efforts are foremost among them.

The devil is in the differences.

Indeed, it will be very difficult to overcome these differences to produce a durable and robust cooperative relationship.

The US and China are on opposite sides of a political chasm - and perhaps history. The US is the sole superpower of yesterday and today. But its credibility, legitimacy and ability to impose its will are fast eroding. Indeed, it is no longer a "Leviathan" overseeing and ruling the global system.

China is a developing country that views the US-led Western developed world with both envy and suspicion. Its suspicion translates into fear that the West wants to use environmental concerns and trade issues to constrain - if not contain - China's rapid economic progress and undermine its "socialist" political system.

China also believes that it is being constrained by the international world order that favours a system developed and sustained by the West. China's leaders believe China represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. Indeed, China's leaders believe it is China's destiny to regain its prominence, if not pre-eminence, in the region and perhaps eventually the world. Inevitably, China will try to manipulate the international system to accommodate its national interests and facilitate its rise.

Although the US and China have relatively opposite trajectories - one slowly declining, the other rapidly rising - they are, in this brief moment in human history, intersecting and may even be tangential. But clearly the two have fundamentally different views of the principles upon which a "new relationship" should be built.

China will likely insist that the relationship be guided by the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

These are mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual nonaggression, mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

Mr Xi and other Chinese leaders have also added that the "new relationship" should be characterised by "mutual understanding and strategic trust", respect for "each other's core interests" and "sharing of global responsibilities".

China appears to be interpreting the "new model" as a de facto recognition of China's enhanced status and US "respect" for its core interests, such as Taiwan, Tibet and perhaps its claims in the East China and South China seas.

But the US sees it as a means of managing China's burgeoning competition and aspirations, and of obtaining China's "cooperation" on geopolitical issues critical to the US and the status quo.

The US will likely insist on United Nation Charter principles like "settling international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security are not endangered" and "refraining in international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state".

Of course, the US has not been a shining example of compliance with the letter or spirit of these pledges. This is illustrated by its almost daily drone and cyber "penetrations" into sovereign states and its frequent - by word or deed - threats and use of force to secure its national interests.

Indeed, in the 20th century, there were many instances when the US intervened militarily to alter political conditions in its favour.

Examples include Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan and more than 25 other independent states. It has become quite normal to do so, and it is to be expected that as China rises, it will want - and try - to do the same.

Contrary to President Obama's soothing words, the US basically wants to maintain the existing status quo in which it is the dominant actor and patron. This is essentially a continuation of its Cold War policy and posture in the region. This consists of a substantially forward deployed military presence and a hub-andspoke alliance structure.

The US has neither the experience nor the inclination to treat countries as equals and to share real power. It is not likely to start now. Doing so would be disastrous for whichever US political party aspires to power at a time when its national politics is so fractious.

In forging a "new relationship", the US is clearly focused on specifics such as Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, as well as freedom of navigation. But a new model of major-country relations needs a more durable foundation based on agreed principles and mutual understanding of how they translate into specifics.

Given their fundamental differences, opposing trajectories and conflicting national interests, it simply does not seem likely that the US will give and China will accept what it will take to make this "new relationship" a reality.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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