China's military build-up in the South China Sea continues to rile the United States, the world's current sole superpower, and its allies, but the friction between these two powers is sabre-rattling at most, said veteran Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan yesterday.
War between the two "is highly improbable", he said in the second of five lectures as the Institute of Policy Studies' second S R Nathan fellow. If they did go to war, it would be by accident, not by design.
US-China ties, he said, have long been marred by a "deep strategic mistrust" such that the US has drifted towards viewing China as a threat. And it did not help that China was culturally "exclusive" as the US was "inclusive", which has led Beijing to view countries such as Japan - a staunch US ally - as being subordinate to it.
That mistrust was rooted in a clutch of misunderstandings between the two, which was unfortunate, because in reality, the US not only depended deeply on China economically, but also had in China a competitor and rival who was not out to unseat it, Mr Kausikan said.
It followed, he added, that it would be equally futile for China to keep the US out of East Asia.
On the North Korea threat
North Korea may be testing the world's patience with its threatening missile launches, but Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan is not paying its antics much heed.
In a lively question-and-answer session with the audience after his lecture, moderated by fellow Ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee, he said Pyongyang actually wanted "the love and affection" of the United States by, among other things, having Washington negotiate a peace agreement with it directly.
That many in the West, including the US, perceive China as North Korea's ally, if not friend, is also a big bugbear in US-China ties.
But Mr Kausikan said: "There is no love lost between China and North Korea. If you hear in North Korea how they talk about China, your hair will stand on end. And China does not like North Korea's nuclear programme. So China and the US have a common concern."
The snag, he pointed out, was that four of the world's five communist states were in Asia, namely China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos. Cuba is the fifth. "No matter how much China dislikes North Korea's nuclear programme, to expect China to take out sanctions on North Korea is a pipe dream because... if China is seen as complicit in undermining the rule of one communist party, that has immediate complications for it."
When Prof Chan suggested that China might also be concerned about refugees from North Korea spilling into China, he said:
"Refugees you can deal with, but if you undermine another communist regime, it will give evil thoughts to your own people."
Cheong Suk Wai
What, then, is it about China's rise that has unsettled the US?
Mr Kausikan suggested it was its "capitalism without democracy", which was a credible alternative to US power that had been cloaked in notions that US values, such as its democracy, worked for everyone.
He said that, unlike the US, China was not revisionist or bent on creating a new world order. It merely wanted to "reclaim something of its central historical role in East Asia". In doing so, it had neither the intent nor capability to "push" the US out of East Asia entirely.
The rub, he added, was how China could reassert itself without provoking Japan or South Korea, which might result in their pursuing nuclear power to bolster their might.
All told, the US and China agree at least on two out of three things to help their ties: First, they would minimise disagreements; second, they would try to cooperate whenever and wherever they could.
The sticking point was the third element, and one most dear to China: mutual respect for each other's core interests.
For China, that meant preserving Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. But the US could not be seen to legitimise communist rule.
"I think the US knows that preservation of CCP rule is the most vital of Chinese core interests and is reluctant to endorse this explicitly... (as it) requires a redefinition of American values," he said.
The upside to China's top priority - preserving CCP rule - was that it would not to go to war with the US as it would likely lose and that would weaken the CCP, perhaps mortally. Mr Kausikan also stressed that the most persistent misunderstanding was that economic reform in China would lead to political reform. He cautioned, however, against thinking that a rising China necessarily meant a declining US.
"Changes in power are relative, not absolute," he noted.
So, he said, the US will still be the "pre-eminent" global power for the foreseeable future. But it could smoothen ties with China further by grasping the notion that "common concerns are not the same as common interests".
Till then, he said, the rest of the world will have to live with the uncertainty from the two powers "groping" towards some semblance of balance in ties.
Looking back on centuries of mistrust, he said: "What is surprising is that despite persistent misunderstanding... there has been so little trouble, although when trouble ensues, it has been spectacular, as during the Korean War."
He noted that US President Barack Obama was perceived as less engaged in global affairs and, so, weaker in his second term.
Mr Kausikan said this probably meant that Mr Obama's imminent successor would "talk tougher" with China.