The US-China relations are at a low ebb today. Key issues dividing the world’s two leading economic powers include widespread computer hacking, economic tensions, concerns over human rights, pressures on foreign nonprofits in China, and the increasing Chinese assertions of sovereignty in South China Sea shipping lanes vital to global commerce.
The Obama administration’s foreign policy rebalance, or «pivot», to Asia has been widely interpreted in China as an attempt to contain its rise.
US efforts to bolster ties and military alliances with regional states such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have created a new narrative in Beijing – that the United States has encouraged China’s neighbors to push their territorial claims more aggressively. These are fundamental and structural disagreements. And the situation continues to get worse.
China came under harsh criticism at the Republican Party’s convention in Cleveland. The Party’s platform says China is guilty of «cultural genocide», «barbaric population control» and a state-backed «hostile takeover» of American businesses.
«China’s behavior has negated the optimistic language of our last platform concerning our future relations with China. The liberalizing policies of recent decades have been abruptly reversed, dissent brutally crushed, religious persecution heightened, the internet crippled, a barbaric population control two-child policy of forced abortions and forced sterilizations continued, and the cult of Mao revived», the paper reads.
Donald Trump, the Party’s presidential hopeful, has said he would favor a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States.
He has also promised to take actions many economists believe would start a trade war with China, including introducing retaliatory tariffs, bringing trade cases against the country in the World Trade Organization and labeling China a «currency manipulator».
The Republican presidential candidate believes that «a strong military presence will be a clear signal to China and other nations in Asia and around the world that America is back in the global leadership business».
The Democrats draft platform says by and large the same thing, «We will stand up to Beijing on unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, and cyberattacks. And we will promote greater respect for human rights, including the rights of Tibetans».
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential runner, has said she’d get tough with China, accusing it of breaking trade rules which, she insisted, would be enforced in her administration.
In a stirring speech to the AFL-CIO union, Mrs Clinton said, «I’ve gone toe-to-toe with Chinese leaders on some of the toughest issues we’ve faced… I know how they operate», she said during a campaign speech in Pennsylvania. «And they know that if I’m their president, they’re going to have to toe the line».
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton routinely attacked China.
In 2010 she provoked outrage by pushing the South China Sea to the top of the regional and US security agendas.
In 2011, Clinton said China was on a «fool’s errand» to try to halt the march of freedom, while in 2012 she was deeply involved in efforts to get blind dissident Chen Guangcheng out of China after he fled to the US embassy in Beijing.
The attacks against China from the Republican and Democratic camps come against the backdrop of aggravating tensions over the South China Sea dispute.
On July 12, the international Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague sided with the Philippines and other nations supported by the United States and ruled that China has no territorial rights to these islands nor to the South China Sea. The ruling eviscerates one of China’s most contentious claims of sovereignty.
China has said it will not accept the court’s decision that contradicts the international law.
The South China Sea has long fomented a diplomatic row between China and its neighbors, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All of these countries have staked claim to the 14 islands and underwater formations often referred to as the Spratly Islands.
Located near strategic shipping lanes and rich in fish and a potentially huge source of hydrocarbons, the disputed islands have the potential to become a tinderbox.
The US is involved in the dispute openly siding with China’s rivals. It has directed military resources to the region. As far back as 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the waters as the «West Philippine Sea».
China vowed to take all necessary measures to protect its sovereignty over the South China Sea and said it had the right to set up an air defense zone, after rejecting an international tribunal’s ruling denying its claims to the energy-rich waters.
Beijing has backed its claims with island-building and naval patrols. It might accelerate its military build-up if the United States makes more provocative military moves in the South China Sea in the wake of the international tribunal ruling.
Meanwhile the Pentagon has bolstered its military presence in the Philippines.
Washington has stepped up military patrols and exercises in the South China Sea – the acts that China considers provocative and targeted at its sovereignty and security interests.
The US military has deployed its superior fleet of drones and warships to the region to scare China into submission. The United States has stated, it is adamant to continue with its naval operations in the area.
«The Chinese people do not want to have war, so we will be opposed to [the] US if it stirs up any conflict», said Liu Zhenmin, vice minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. «Of course, if the Korean War or Vietnam War are replayed, then we will have to defend ourselves», he stressed.
As the dispute festers, experts see a higher chance of an unintended conflict between US and Chinese vessels or aircraft, something that was witnessed in 2001 when a Chinese and a US plane collided.
The US and China traded harsh accusations in May after what the Pentagon said was an «unsafe» encounter between two Chinese fighter jets and a US military reconnaissance aircraft flying over the South China Sea. The risks of a flare-up are really high in the region which has $5 trillion worth of trade pass through its waters annually.
The agreement between the US and South Korea to deploy THAAD missile defense system on South Korean soil has poured fuel to the fire. Seen as a hostile action, it angered Beijing.
China views THAAD as a serious threat to its interests in the region. The system would potentially be able to intercept Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Beijing also believes, the radar deployed with THAAD is able to see far into its territory.
It will give Washington the potential to collect intelligence on China’s military capabilities. The THAAD deployment will be great irritant to spoil the US-China bilateral ties for many years to come.
In 2014 President Obama said he wanted to take the US relationship with China «to a new level».
He has clearly failed. The two countries are balancing on the brink of a conflict. Taking into account the positions of the presidential candidates, there is hardly any prospect for improvement. The relations with Russia are actually in ruins.
Add to it the much spoken of failure of the Middle East policy, among other things. History will hardly look kindly on Mr Obama’s legacy in foreign policy. Anti-American sentiments are strong across the globe.
No matter who wins in November, a new US president will have to clear the mess tackling a full menu of new tasks. The strained relationship with two leading world powers has nothing to do with the interests of American people.
ALEX GORKA | SCF