The United States of America and China. What kind of relationship will the number one and number two economies in the world, as well as top two major military powers, build between each other? It is still difficult to predict the direction of the U.S.-China relationship, a relationship which directly affects the future of Asia.
President Obama and President Xi Jinping – who was on a state visit to the U.S. – held talks this week. Obama told Xi there were “significant concerns” with China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. However, Xi disagreed on the issue and emphasized China’s right to “our own territorial sovereignty.”
On a different issue, both sides agreed on steps to avoid accidental midair military collisions. In the area of cybercrime – an area the U.S. in particular views as problematic – both sides agreed to refrain from the cybertheft of industrial secrets.
Both the U.S. and China gave the clear impression of wanting to avoid direct conflict without giving any concessions. Confrontation rather than cooperation was probably what stood out most in the talks.
The term “Thucydides Trap” has been used to describe the U.S.-China relationship in recent years. This term refers to the historical lesson associated with the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, a lesson which claims that an existing superpower and emerging one will inevitably collide.
Both Obama and Xi invoked the Thucydidean phrase in relation to the talks, stressing the need to avoid the Thucydides Trap. However, one has to wonder if the situation is really OK.
Unlike U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, the U.S. and China are interconnected economically. There is a common understanding that if the two sides were to reach full-blown conflict, both sides would emerge at a loss. To that end, China’s provocative conduct with its seaward expansion encourages distrust from the United States.
U.S. strategy revolves around leading China toward superpower status, within the constraints of international law and using a combination of cooperation and containment. China is pursuing policies that will lead them into a “new model of great power relations.” In other words, China is demanding that it be recognized as the leading power of Asia and the U.S. is rejecting such a demand.
Will the two nations progress toward cooperation or will they steer toward conflict? The answer presents a significant crossroads for the prosperity of Asia. Japan, being aligned with the U.S., must occasionally work as an intermediary to foster stable growth in U.S.-China relations. In order to accomplish this end, the Japanese government should first make haste in improving Japan-China relations.