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Reading the headlines about U.S.-China relations might lead one to conclude that current tensions between the two have less to do with political differences than chemical imbalances: "The Chinese Tiger Shows Its Claws" vs. "China Helps Defuse Korea Crisis"; or "America is far too soft in its dealings with Beijing" vs. "Blaming China will not solve America’s problems." What comes to mind is a dose of Thorazine, or maybe a Lithium regime?
In fact, there are both real differences and common ground, but sorting through them can be a taxing exercise in deep analysis. Are the tensions over an increasingly aggressive Beijing beginning to assert itself in a world formerly dominated by the Americans? Or is Washington encircling China with allies and military bases aimed at blocking the rise of an up-and-coming international rival?
On the surface this antagonism resembles the imperial competition between Britain and Germany at end of the 19th century, but the world of 2011 is very different than in 1914, far more connected, far more interdependent, and yet still dangerous. What does seem clear is that every time either side brings in its military, tensions increase and solutions turn elusive.
The partnership between Beijing and Washington is built on money and trade. China currently holds almost a trillion dollars in U.S. Treasury Securities, and yearly trade between the two is over $400 billion. In comparison, China’s trade with the entire European Union is about the same. Both economies are interdependent, and trouble in one generally means trouble in the other.
But as the number one and number two economies in the world, China and the U.S. are also competitors for markets and raw materials.
China is currently the number two energy user in the world, and, to fuel its explosive industrialization, it will require 11.3 million barrels of oil a day (bpd) by 2015. Since it only produces 3.7 million bpd on its own, much of China’s foreign policy in aimed at insuring a steady flow of energy. How that energy gets to China, and who supplies it, is the rub.
China’s major suppliers are Saudi Arabia, Angola and Iran, which means about 80 percent of its energy supplies travel by sea through two choke points, the Straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits. Both are controlled by the U.S. Navy.
Beijing has adopted a two-pronged strategy to deal with its energy insecurity. First, it is increasingly moving its energy supplies via pipelines from Russia and Central Asia. The Turkmenistan-Xingjian pipeline is up and running, as is the huge Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline from Russia.
Secondly, it is beefing up its sea borne forces and establishing a "string of pearls": a series of Chinese navy-friendly ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Gwadar, Pakistan. The Gwadar port could also serve as the jumping off point for an Iran-India-Pakistan-China pipeline. Iran and Pakistan have already signed on, and India and China have signaled their interest. If the U.S. successfully pressures India to keep out, China will step in with investment money.
But the naval buildup is only partly due to Chinese nervousness over its sea routes. A major impetus behind the increase came out of a 1996 incident, when the Clinton administration sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits during a tense standoff between Formosa and the mainland. Since the Chinese did not have an aircraft carrier, or much in the way of weapons that could challenge them, Beijing was forced to back off. It was a humiliation in their home waters that the Chinese were not about to forget.
China’s navy, however, is a long way from presenting any serious challenge to the U.S. For instance, China’s lone aircraft carrier was originally constructed by the Russians in the 1980s, and is half the size of a Nimitz-class carrier, of which the U.S. has 10.
Much has been made of a new Chinese ballistic missile that U.S. Admiral Robert Willard recently claimed was a major threat to U.S. carriers. But the missile is not yet operational, and no one really knows what its capabilities are.
"China’s military rise is not to attack America, but to make sure that China is not attacked by America," says Chinese military analyst Liu Mingfu.
However, China’s push to keep the U.S. out of areas it considers "core" has also put it in conflict with a number of south Asian nations that have equal claims on islands in the South China Sea. Some of that tension is the result of some serious high handedness by Beijing. In responding to protests over China’s claims, Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, sounded almost imperial: "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact."
The spat gave Washington an opportunity to extend its support to countries in the region, including Vietnam, which as welcomed U.S. naval vessels back to Cam Ranh Bay and carried out joint military maneuvers with their old enemies.
Beijing views U.S. efforts to "mediate" disputes in its core areas as part of a campaign to encircle China with hostile bases and allies. The U.S. has more than 100 bases in Japan, 85 in South Korea, plus ones in the Philippines, Guam, and even a few in Central Asia.
"If you are a strategic thinker in China, you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China," says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
But, in the case of the1996 Taiwan incident and the recent South China Sea brouhaha, military threats ended up backfiring on both China and the U.S. The Clinton administration’s gunboat diplomacy ignited a naval building program by China that now presents a local challenge to the U.S. And China’s cavalier approach to its south Asian neighbors ended up giving Washington an opening and handing Beijing a diplomatic setback.
Likewise China’s prickliness with India over their mutual border has given the U.S. greater influence in New Delhi, and a recent dustup between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyus islands has pushed Tokyo closer to Washington.
In short, military threats, even veiled ones, generally end up blowing up on whoever makes them.
In part this is a reflection of the difference between the world of 1914 and today. Back then imperial adventures generally brought benefits. Today the terms "adventures" and "overreach" are almost synonymous.
The U.S. has the most powerful military in the world, but its sojourn in Iraq has been a strategic disaster, and it is bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. The U.S. could probably win any conventional battle on the planet, but it increasingly finds that it cannot win a war. It could flatten Iran, but does anyone believe the Iranians would then surrender? It would be far more likely that the consequent jump in oil prices would topple economies across the globe.
In contrast, the Chinese have recently cut a deal for Iraqi oil, and Afghan minerals, all without losing a single soldier. They have also invested $120 billion in Iran’s energy and become Teheran’s number one trading partner. While the U.S. was building new military bases in Central America and firing up its Fifth Fleet to rattle sabers in Latin America, China was toppling the U.S. as the continent’s major trading partner.
The recent U.S.-China summit went smoothly, countering much of the rhetoric that the two giants were on a collision course. But while Washington and Beijing found much to agree on (and tip-toed past some of what they did not), the tension is still there.
What both sides must avoid is letting their respective general staffs have a say in what relations between the two nations should be. Irrespective of the language they speak, every admiral wants a new ship, and every general wants a new missile. The job of the military is to win wars and that requires lots of things that go bang.
But these days things that go bang are increasingly expensive and more likely to cause grief than win laurels.
CONN HALLINAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org