China neither world power nor shrinking violet

US Admiral Mike Mullen and China’s General Chen Bingde sparred over the South China Sea issue Monday. The small-scale war of words made headlines at many media outlets.

Chen’s tough words impressed more than a few Western analysts, since China’s blunt criticism of US military policy during Mullen’s visit was obviously something they hadn’t expected.

Since the 1980s, a few military scholars, including myself, began to write special reports to top decision-makers, reminding them to watch out for and strive to prevent the internationalization of the South China Sea issue.

At that time, eight neighboring countries that have territorial disputes with China, including the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, tried to internationalize the issue. They thus started to introduce European investors for joint exploitation of resources in the area.  

The US didn’t step in at first, and previous US administrations did not see their national interests as being related to this area.

There was no US intervention until recent years when US decision-makers sought a strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region. This is a strong propeller of the internationalization of the South China Sea issue, which has now become an irreversible trend.

Chen’s tough stand is in line with China’s military morale and public will. Being tough on such pivotal issues has nothing to do with China’s national strength, since there is no room for a step back. Even if China is weak, it shouldn’t show the white flag in political and diplomatic affairs.

Looking back, we should reflect upon some of our practices in dealing with the South China Sea issue. It is critical to directly deliver China’s position to US military at the moment.

Mullen’s visit was somewhat upstaged by the US naval drills in the South China Sea and the superpower’ insistence in selling arms to Taiwan. The visit surely helps both sides exchange thoughts, and engagement is always better than isolation. Nevertheless, we should also see that this is just a regular and scheduled visit. As the US and China see more conflicts over regional issues, high-level military exchanges will probably be suspended again.

The US-China military relationship is neither shaky, nor in a honeymoon period. On the one hand, the US will never involve itself in a comprehensive war with China, whether for China’s Taiwan, for Japan, or for any South Asian country.

The US has made clear calculations in the political, military and economic fields. Costs will overwhelm benefits if it fights with China over these issues. Therefore, one doesn’t need to worry that the US-China confrontation will become the largest threat to world peace in future decades.

But on the other hand, the two severely lack strategic trust, which stems from different intrinsic systems. The Cold War mentality still shadows the US, and it always needs to find an “enemy state.”

China is not a “world power” as Mullen praised it as being, but the Chinese won’t be frightened if a war really erupts between the two. History has shown that China has great potential in warfare, and it will probably win if national morale is aroused. 

Neither side wants a war, but neither wants to compromise on pivotal issues either. This determines that the two won’t become a pair of strategic partners, and their confrontation over regional issues will intensify in the future.

Both sides need to comprehensively understand each other. I’ve talked to some senior US military officials. They are very rational and polite. Generally speaking, US military decision-makers want to maintain peace, too. But they don’t believe that China has no ambition to invade others or, as China says is the case, no appetite for expansionism.

China should also have a better understanding of the Americans. Regional conflicts will not run out of control as long as decision-makers on both sides stay rational and cool-headed.

The article was compiled by Chen Chenchen based on an interview with Wei Guoan, a senior strategist based in Beijing.

Source : Global Times

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