Reality Check: The South China Sea Does Not Define the US-China Relationship

The relationship between the world’s two most important countries is far broader than the South China Sea disputes.

Reality Check: The South China Sea Does Not Define the US-China Relationship
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Over the last two years or so, the South China Sea issue has been dominating Sino-U.S. relations, as evidenced by endless newspaper headlines, regional summits, and think tank events. At the most recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, for example, again the South China Sea issue dominated the agenda. So we cannot entirely blame general readers and casual followers of international news for misunderstanding Sino-U.S. ties. The reality is very different from what you read in the headlines.

For example, at the recently concluded Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in Beijing, a number of important agreements were moved along by both countries. Among them, the Bilateral Investment Treaty is a major one. Both sides agreed to speed up the process and exchange so-called negative lists soon. Renminbi trading will also soon head to the U.S. market, further deepening the economic interdependence between China and the United States.

And, of course, there are major global and regional issues that have seen positive cooperation between China and the United States during the last few years, including climate change, the Iranian nuclear issue, and, most recently, UN sanctions on North Korea. All this just shows how global the Sino-U.S. relationship really is, reminding us of the relative lack of importance of the South China Sea issue.

Given this, why is it the case the South China Sea issue tends to dominate newspaper headlines, not to mention private and public conversations between the United States and its Asian allies? This is partly because the media has a tendency to report more conflict-based and negative stories in global affairs. It is also partly because both the United States and China have failed to effectively communicate their respective intentions toward each other. It should be crystal clear to top leaders that China has no intention or capability to push the United States out of Asia and the U.S. has no intention or capability or block China’s rise in Asia and beyond. Despite all the debates that are ongoing within both countries, this fundamental point should be emphasized and reemphasized again and again by officials on both sides. Unfortunately, so far, we have not seen adequate efforts to this and.

And so the mistrust and suspicions continue.

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As Peking University’s Wang Jisi, dean of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies, pointed out last year in an influential essay on Sino-U.S. relations, the problem of “two orders” lies at the heart of the Sino-U.S. relationship today. Essentially, this means that the United States should respect China’s domestic order and the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. Meanwhile, China should respect America’s global leadership. In other words, the United States should not try to impose its values and political will on China’s domestic order, and China should likewise not seek to change the rules and norms of a liberal international order that has been largely underwritten by the United States since 1945. So, in a sense, maintaining stability is a common interest between the two powers, though China’s focus is focused on domestic stability and the United States’ on the stability of the international order.

To avoid what seems like an inevitable conflict between a dominant power and a rising power, both China and the United States should take a step back and reevaluate their fundamental interests with regard to the South China Sea. Once this is done, China will realize its first priority is to realize the “China dream” or modernization for the Chinese people, not its claims in the South China Sea. Also, the United States will realize that its own first priority is maintaining a liberal international order, which can only be done by bringing China into it and accommodating China’s legitimate interests and demands.

There will always be some sort of competition between China and the United States, but this can be good for the world. We should not, however, let the South China Sea define U.S.-China relations. To allow that to happen would indeed be foolish and lead to a tragedy in great power politics.