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Vantage Point Analysis

The Scope Of Growing US-China Tensions

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Context

Navigating the stormy waters of relations with China has always been a delicate job for the US, especially if China refuses to follow suit with the new sanctions on Iran. China’s position on Iran will be a cause of concern in the US, but how Washington responds will be a clearer indication if a more serious confrontation is in store. In addition to economic and military options, the social media has become an increasingly lethal soft weapon that China is concerned about.

Two major events are weighing in on the status of US-China relations: the recent announcement of a shift in focus for the US toward the Asia Pacific, and the new US sanctions against Iranian oil trade. Both events have uncovered a new nexus of complexity in the US-China relationship.

Analysis

US Sanctions On Iranian Oil

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who conducted a five-day tour of the Arabian Peninsula recently, has defended China’s decision to maintain trade relations with Iran: “China's oil trade with Iran is normal trade activity... legitimate trade should be protected, otherwise the world economic order would fall into turmoil." His tone is in keeping with the sentiment in Beijing that the unilateral sanctions form the US impinge on China’s sovereignty and relations with other states.

At the same press conference in Doha where he made these remarks, Mr. Wen also chose to send a message to Iran, saying: "We believe that, no matter what the circumstances, the security of the Gulf of Hormuz and normal shipping passage through it must be guaranteed, because this is in the interests of the whole world." He also added that China "adamantly opposes Iran developing and possessing nuclear weapons.”

While Iran must be pleased that China is maintaining trade ties, the last sentiment regarding nuclear weapons would be a slap on the wrist for Iran, as China normally stays quiet on this subject and has in the past supported Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program.

For the US and China, resolving the issue of the sanctions will be tricky. China is Iran’s largest export partner in crude, and to grant a waiver to China, or to allow China to trade unhindered will more or less render the sanctions defunct. With Russia expressing similar sentiments to China on the sanctions issue, the US will have a tough time making the sanctions squeeze Iran in the right places, as two of the region’s biggest influences are standing by Iran on this issue.

New US Defense Strategy

Beijing is now watching US movement in the Asia Pacific with a more suspicious eye. It is no secret that the US intends to counteract Chinese influence in the region, particularly in valuable sea-lanes, by boosting military aid to allies in the region and bolstering the US’s own military presence.

This sentiment was confirmed recently by US Senator Joseph Lieberman at a press conference in Manila who stated that “we simply cannot allow one nation, in this case China, to exercise disproportionate control over these waterways,” referring to the South China Sea. At the same press conference, Senator John McCain reiterated however that “we do not foresee a conflict or confrontation with China,” but that boosting military ties with neighbors and allies in the region is Washington’s way to ensure China stays in check.

At the same time former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in China, offering similar sentiments. “A conflict between China and the United States would weaken both societies,” Kissinger told Chinese media. “You realize we can only exhaust ourselves by conflict, and that is the guiding principle of foreign policy.”

A Veiled Threat

China, and Russia too, have been watching the uprisings in the Middle East with much concern. The civil unrest in the region has taken a huge toll in just over a year and radically changed the landscape of the Middle East. China’s concern is that dissidents within China will seek to replicate the Jasmine Revolution and seek to instigate a popular uprising.

It is interesting to note that as China takes the route of negotiated settlement and against sanctions, in case of both Iran and Syria, US has been more vocal of late regarding China’s human rights record and the lack of freedoms in China. Only recently the US ambassador to China Gary Locke told reporters at a Washington press conference that the political situation within China was “very, very delicate” he further highlighted the success of a number of demonstrations within China, however clarified that “I think it would take something very significant, internal to China, to cause any type of major upheaval."

The US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul has similarly highlighted Russia’s human rights record, and come under fire for meeting with government opposition groups and civil rights groups.

Both China and Russia would be aware of the perception that the US had something to do with igniting the Arab Spring uprisings via the use of social media and activating civil society activists. The increase of noise about the Chinese and Russian human rights could be seen as a veiled threat to these countries, particularly if they refuse to comply with the Iranian sanctions.
This is a new tactical weapon for the US, one which uses much fewer resources and is far less risky for US interests. Furthermore, the US would not have to “exhaust itself” to incite unrest in China, but if a Jasmine Revolution were to happen, China would exhaust itself with the US watching from the sidelines.

Weighing the Options

The US and China both have a lot at stake where their relationship is concerned. Both states are testing boundaries with each other, and it depends on how flexible these boundaries are, and how far they are stretched as to whether conflict develops into more than just a diplomatic row.

China has been unhappy for quite some time with the US’s renewed push into the Asia Pacific, and particularly the US’s “you either with us or against us” diplomacy, which doesn’t sit well at all with China’s diplomatic style. This was evident with the US reaction to the sinking of the South Korean vessel the Cheonan in March of 2011, and of course with the unilateral sanctions on Iran. Moreover, China’s ability to disagree with the United States is somewhat of a source of pride in Beijing. The US’s continual drawing of diplomatic lines in sand on issues that concern China will inevitably take their toll. If there is one thing to ignite a row with China that could potentially spark conflict, it’s interfering in areas China deems their own.

For the US, China is of great importance economically, yet poses a conundrum because of its vast difference in culture – both civil and political – as well as its history of human rights abuses. The rise of China in the Asia Pacific region is of great concern for the US because the region has been a US stronghold since the end of World War II.

The underlying truth for both countries is as Kissinger put it. Conflict between China and the United States would significantly weaken both countries, and neither country has a public with much of an appetite for war at this point.

This leaves a tricky minefield of diplomacy to steer in the months ahead. The US will need to tread carefully as it implements its new Asia policy – particularly as pertains to the disputed Spratly Islands. How both countries resolve their differences over the Iran sanctions will shed more light on the likelihood of tensions escalating and thus PoliTact will be monitoring this situation carefully.
 


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