Keep Hope Alive

How to Prevent U.S.-Chinese Relations From Blowing Up

Sea power: Chinese naval recruits in Qingdao, December 2013. China Daily / Courtesy Reuters

At their summit in California last June, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping committed themselves to building trust between their countries. Since then, new official forums for communication have been launched (such as the military-to-military dialogues recently announced by the two countries’ defense ministers), complementing existing forums such as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (which features the countries’ top diplomats and economic officials). But despite these efforts, trust in both capitals -- and in the countries at large -- remains scarce, and the possibility of an accidental or even intentional conflict between the United States and China seems to be growing. Given the vast potential costs such a conflict would carry for both sides, figuring out how to keep it at bay is among the most important international challenges of the coming years and decades.

The factors undermining trust are easy to state. East Asia’s security and economic landscape is undergoing massive, tectonic change, driven primarily by China’s remarkable economic rise in recent decades. That economic miracle, in turn, has made it possible for China to increase its military capacity and ramp up its political role in the region and beyond. China’s leaders and prominent strategists have been at pains to insist that China’s rise will be peaceful and poses no threat to its neighbors or the existing international political and economic order. But many members of the world community remain concerned and even skeptical, noting that history and international relations theory are replete with examples of conflict arising from clashes between a dominant and a rising power.

Such skepticism has been fueled, moreover, by China’s own recent actions, from its assertive maritime operations in the East China and South China seas to its unilateral proclamation of an “air defense identification zone” around the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands), in the East China Sea. And U.S. military planners have become increasingly concerned about the trajectory of China’

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