Are US-China relations beyond the tipping point?
Many analysts in both the United States and China have warned of a "tipping point" in China-US relations beyond which the two nations conclude that conflict is unavoidable and begin preparing for it in earnest while trying to hide their true intentions.
This is different from hedging in that there is no easy way back. Beyond the tipping point, the national mindset and policy decisions inexorably flow towards conflict.
Such a clash of titans would not be a new phenomenon. In classic realist theory, established powers strive to preserve their position at the top of the hierarchy and view emerging powers as potential threats. Rising powers, on the other hand, feel constrained and strive to stretch the sinews of the international system.
Rising powers also fear that the dominant power will try to snuff them out before they become an existential threat. Athenian historian Thucydides described this process with respect to the relationship between Athens and Sparta as inevitably leading to war. Today, the situation is known as the "Thucydides trap". The international relations question of our age is: "Can China and the US avoid it?"
The situation really is serious, and growing worse by the day. It is now clear that China expects to play a major role in global affairs. It wants to be a new rule maker and an old rule breaker in order to become an "exceptional" country like the US. The accommodation of such a role for China by the US is what President Xi Jinping presumably meant when he proposed a new type of major country relationship at his Sunnylands summit with US President Barack Obama in June last year.
But as Mr Ashley Tellis argues in his new book, Balancing Without Containment: An American Strategy For Managing China, "the loss of primacy to China would fundamentally undermine the national security interests of the United States in the most comprehensive sense imaginable".
Already, it seems, we may be witnessing a fundamental US foreign policy failure in East Asia. The US has not been able to unify Asean against China, stem China's assertiveness or even enhance stability in the South China Sea. Its "pivot" towards East Asia has only made the region more unstable and a point of contention between it and China. Washington's attempts to impose an interim solution to the disputes there have so far failed.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, believes the risk of war in Asia will increase over the next 10 years as the US military technological edge over China erodes. One indication of a change in Washington's mindset was a move by the US Air Force to deploy significantly more B-2 stealth bombers and advanced B-52H strategic bombers to Guam.
In a clear allusion to China, a frustrated US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told a security conference in May this year that "the United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged".
Mr Tellis proposes that "the US pursue policies that simultaneously increase China's stake in the existing global system and raise the costs of abusing its power". His strategy would also require the US to support states around China by increasing "cooperation" with them.
This is already happening. According to Mr Daniel Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, "we joined EAS (East Asia Summit) because, as an Asia-Pacific nation, we want to be at the table for a strategic discussion about how we build and shape the institution over time".
Another element of this strategy is the enhancement of the US military as a deterrent, in a way that reassures US allies and convinces fence-sitters to lean towards it while dissuading China's assertiveness towards its neighbours. The last element is to promote "the highest velocity of technical change possible across the spectrum of civilian to military endeavours" - essentially to out-create and out-think China technically and economically. This is the key to US dominance.
China, however, sees the tectonic plates of the global international political system shifting, with the US and China on opposite sides of the divide - and perhaps history. The US is yesterday's and today's sole superpower but its credibility, legitimacy and ability to impose its will are fast eroding.
Indeed, America no longer rules the global system. As Mr Eric X. Li, a venture capitalist in Shanghai, put it in a recent New York Times commentary: "The US is deeply in debt; its middle class is crumbling; its industries have been hollowed out; its infrastructure is in disrepair; its education system is badly underfunded; and its social contract is in shambles." It is also squandering blood and treasure as it tries in vain to sustain its dominance.
China's leaders believe China represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. Many of its neighbours are keenly aware of this distinct possibility, and are thus hedging and trying to manoeuvre between the two.
If the US wants to avoid direct conflict - or at least postpone it - (it is not clear that the US is trying to do either) it has to accommodate to some degree China's international interests and aspirations by sharing power. When and how to do this, and on what issues, are challenges for US government thinkers to ponder. For its part, China needs to prove by its actions that it will not use force to settle disputes.
The two nations have fundamental differences and conflicting national interests. Perhaps the tipping point has already been breached. If so, all we policy analysts and policymakers are doing now is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The writer is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.