The relationship between the United States and China is often described as being one of neither friends nor foes – a simple but apt description of the bilateral ties between the two major powers. For over two decades since the end of the Cold War, the overall relationship between the United States and China has been largely stable, even though there have been incessant frictions between them over US arms sales to Taiwan, territorial and maritime disputes involving China in East Asian seas, human rights, trade imbalance, intellectual property rights, non-proliferation, climate change, and many other issues in global governance. One could argue that globalization has made US-China relations stable. Globalization has made the two societies interconnected and economically interdependent and has rendered their borders permeable for many of the socio-economic and political opportunities and challenges of the twenty-ﬁrst century. This deepening global engagement also means that the global issues of this century require global efforts, especially on the part of key countries playing a leadership role. The US and China top this list with their enormous resources and accompanying leverage. Political leaders in both the countries have played an important role in painstakingly managing bilateral ties in the past few decades. While continuously putting pressure on Beijing on many political, economic and security issues, successive American decision-makers have chosen not to attempt to contain China, hoping that engagement with the rising power would help integrate China into the existing international order and gradually transform the Chinese political system with more liberal moorings. Similarly, Chinese leaders, during much of the past two decades, were intent on implementing Deng Xiaoping’s low-proﬁle (tao guang yang hui) strategy, believing that only a non-confrontational relationship with the world’s sole superpower would enable them to focus on domestic economic growth. Beijing has thus sought to expand and strengthen cooperation with the US in areas where the interests of the two countries converged and either competed or struggled against Washington’s inﬂuence and leverage on issues of divergence. Nevertheless, Beijing has been cautious that such competition and/or struggles would not transition into
a conﬂictual relationship and thereby damage the bilateral relationship to the extent that it would become irreparable. Consequently, US-China relations have essentially reached a dynamic dyad of cooperation-competition with an important objective of avoiding an armed conﬂict. This underlying dynamic characterizing the relations between the two countries has been possible to realize because of the regular interactions between the leadership and bureaucrats of the two countries over the past decade. Over 60 ofﬁcial consultation mechanisms between Washington and Beijing have been established, with the Strategic and Economic Dialogue becoming the most signiﬁcant forum, which might possibly be overshadowed only by the shirtsleeves summits – if these become a regular ﬁxture in the bilateral presidential diplomatic itinerary. The economic ties and social interactions between the two countries continue to grow. The two countries, together with other major economies in the world, joined hands in tackling the ﬁnancial crisis that started in 2008. Although the military-to-military and security ties between the US and China have always been the weakest link in bilateral relations, the two countries have managed to maintain some level of engagement and communications in these areas, despite the growing strategic distrust and occasional interruptions of bilateral military exchanges. Overall US-China relations will continue to exhibit the co-existence of cooperation and competition in the coming years, and an all-round confrontation between the US and China is very unlikely. However, recent events suggest the emergence of new phenomena in the bilateral relations, phenomena that observers increasingly worry about. Some analysts are concerned about the possibility of China starting to challenge the American hegemonic position in the world and seeking to dramatically transform the existing international order. While it is true that China has now stepped up efforts to contend for more decision-making power in various international institutions and regimes, prevailing evidence shows that Beijing is neither keen to challenge US global supremacy nor willing to take the mantle of global governance. The more worrisome aspect of US-China relations is the increasing strategic rivalry and the possibility of security conﬂicts between the two countries in the Asia-Paciﬁc region. In fact, we have seen the growth of strategic distrust and security differences between Washington and Beijing in the Asia-Paciﬁc region in recent years and it seems that such disputes and tensions are likely to persist. US-China contentions in the Asia-Paciﬁc region have intensiﬁed. Tensions between the US and China in the region have been on the rise essentially because of the increasing friction between the US strategic rebalance to Asia and China’s pursuit of new strategic and security interests in the region. Washington’s new regional strategy has multidimensional characteristics involving economic, diplomatic and military components. Economically, recognizing Asia as a new source of demand
and investments for global economic growth, Washington is keen to push for the conclusion of the Trans-Paciﬁc Partnership (TPP) initiative. Diplomatically, the US has emphasized multilateral engagements with institutions led by ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and increased high-level visits to many regional states by senior American leaders. Militarily, the US has undergone a qualitative and quantitative upgrading of force capabilities and a rebalancing of key military assets to the Asia-Paciﬁc including expansion of its military exercises in the region. US leaders have repeatedly explained that their strategic rebalance to Asia is aimed at beneﬁting from the thriving regional economies and that it emanates from a desire to play the leading role in maintaining peace and stability in the region, but China seems to be not entirely convinced. The majority of the Chinese elite believe that Washington is intent on containing China or at least undermining China’s growing regional inﬂuence. Even the small group of Chinese ofﬁcials and analysts who do not believe in any ‘US conspiracy’ theory conclude that the American strategic rebalance will inevitably lead to the weakening of China’s strategic position and inﬂuence in the Asia-Paciﬁc region. Various statements emanating from China indicate that Beijing is particularly concerned about US efforts in further consolidating its alliances and in deepening security partnerships with a number of regional states. Beijing is extremely critical of US intervention in the territorial and maritime disputes involving China and some regional states in the East China Sea and South China Sea. In fact, it is widely believed in China that Washington has tacitly encouraged or emboldened regional states to challenge and provoke China on those disputes in the past few years purely for the purpose of maintaining Washington’s preponderant strategic position and the pursuit of US security interests. The United States, however, argues from an altruistic stance that all the initiatives related to the rebalancing are undertaken to maintain peace and stability in Asia, while simultaneously beneﬁting from the expanding economic opportunities offered by the regional economies. It appears that China is not prepared to back down in the face of regional disputes and American strategic pressure. China seems to have gained the conﬁdence to handle the perceived challenges from the US strategic rebalancing to the Asia-Paciﬁc. The global ﬁnancial crisis has propelled Beijing to emerge as a new engine of growth for many economies in the Asia-Paciﬁc. In the aftermath of the crisis, Beijing has surpassed other major advanced economies to become not only the largest trading partner for the region but also an important source of investments and aid. China may believe that its growing economic importance in the region could, to some extent, help complement its weak strategic and security ties with many regional states and prevent these states from completely realigning with the US. If the frictions and conﬂicts in the past few years were the initial round of US-China contention in the Asia-Paciﬁc, Beijing may have concluded that it has scored fairly well. Hard-line
decision-makers in Beijing may have relished in the facts that China has successfully created a new status quo over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, has taken the Scarborough Shoal under Chinese control, and dealt a signiﬁcant blow to ASEAN unity over the South China Sea issue in 2012. The Asia-Paciﬁc has become a region of strategic contentions between Washington and Beijing. Given the centrality of the US and China for the strategic stability and economic development of the region, the key issue is that the new dynamics in US-China relations need to be properly understood and appropriately handled. To shed light on this difﬁcult and fascinating subject, this volume includes a diverse range of chapters by leading scholars and analysts from Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Myanmar, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and the United States. The volume seeks to provide a comprehensive study on the strategic dimensions in US-China relations and the strategies in their management; sources of conﬂict and cooperation in US-China relations; and the role of regional states in shaping US-China relations. A few ﬁndings of these studies can be brieﬂy summarized here. First, it is evident in most of the chapters that there is strong political will in China, the US and many other regional states to maintain a stable US-China relationship. Both Chinese and American leaders are apparently keen to address the issue of insufﬁcient strategic trust between the two countries and to maintain the overall stability in bilateral relations. Almost no regional state wants to see an open confrontation between Beijing and Washington, even though some countries that have territorial disputes with China may be interested in seeing strong US security commitments and military presence in the region. Second, sources of instability and conﬂict in US-China relations are many and profound. The most dangerous source of conﬂict in their bilateral relations has been identiﬁed as maritime security in East Asia. Territorial disputes over various islands and other land features in the East and South China Seas, maritime zone demarcations and maritime resources could easily sour US-China relations and could even lead to open conﬂicts between the two countries. It is also pointed out in this volume that the deterioration of strategic trust between Washington and Beijing has generated signiﬁcant negative impact on bilateral relations in some of the less sensitive areas, such as regional economic integration, energy, and various non-traditional security issues. Contending for inﬂuence and the shaping of the regional strategic landscape in the Asia-Paciﬁc is likely to continue to be a major element in US-China relations. Third, if handled properly, the US strategic rebalance to Asia has the potential to help China’s regional policy to become more moderate and more responsible and at the same time stabilize US-China relations. The challenge is how the US and China maintain balance and follow pragmatism in this engagement. For the United States, the challenge is to be
more proactive and innovative in engaging the region economically; to avoid getting locked in the narrow national agendas of any particular country; and to reassure China of its policy initiatives. China has to look into the possibility of taking more responsibilities in the security arena, especially in safeguarding the global commons, as well as to control the temptation to limit Washington’s involvement in Asia. While competition between the US and China is beneﬁcial for the countries in the region, the challenge is to ensure that the friendly competition does not deteriorate into conﬂict.