A new, delicate big power dance

WHEN the Chinese took visiting US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on a tour last week of the country's sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, the move was hailed as a measure of the transparency possible in military relations between the two countries. As the first foreign official to be accorded the honour, Mr Hagel witnessed the importance which Beijing places on its relations with Washington.

Immediately afterwards, however, Chinese officials and the American visitor were caught in an acrimonious exchange of views over their countries' roles in Asia. So combative was the public display that some might think it was more for the benefit of certain constituencies that each side has to take account of.

Mr Hagel criticised Beijing's decision to create unilaterally an air defence identification zone over territory contested with Japan in the East China Sea. Chinese officials, on their part, conveyed a strong sense that Beijing felt hedged in by hostile neighbours emboldened by their treaty relationship with Washington. In asking America to restrain Japan, and in chiding the Philippines, the Chinese were blaming the United States partly for what they see as regional assertiveness targeted at China.

What is significant in the Chinese stance is that, far from wanting to exclude the US militarily and politically from Pacific Asia, Beijing acknowledges Washington's influence over its allies and is urging it to use that influence to keep the region peaceful. Indeed, America plays a definitive role. As Asia's primary security balancer, it can stabilise regional relations by shifting its weight towards the voices of moderation so that military adventurism does not upset the status quo. To that extent, the Americans are right in assuring Japan of their stake in its security. However, a balancer by definition must not tilt the balance to give its allies carte blanche to behave as they please.

Accordingly, the US must ensure that its partners do not misread the security cover it provides as tacit support for acting aggressively towards China. In South-east Asia, Manila must not give Beijing cause to believe that the South China Sea dispute is providing other countries an opportunity to gang up against it. China should have no reason to believe that a new Cold War coalition is forming. Treating a nation as an adversary can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The converse is also true. Behaving like a bully will surely drive others away and cause them to look for those in need of mutual protection.

Both China and the US will have to act with great patience and wisdom if the touted new model of big power relations is to help keep the peace in the region.