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United States and China: Managing a Complex Relationship; By Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami

C3S  Fortnightly Column No. F011 /2015


Once again, the United States and China are facing off with some ongoing rhetoric but few are worried that this is going to get out of hand. At a time when Washington has been aggressively complaining of Beijing fortifying the disputed Spratlys Island, China’s Ministry of Defence has confirmed that the country has successfully concluded yet another test of a supersonic nuclear delivery vehicle that can travel ten times the speed of sound—dubbed “WU 14”. It was said to be the fourth test by China in the last year and a half. The Pentagon for its part has responded saying that it was an “extreme maneuver”.

On the one hand official Beijing has maintained that the test of the supersonic glide is nothing more than “scheduled scientific research and experiments” and that these have neither targeted countries nor specified goals. Yet the temptation has been to read into China responding to continued American interference and involvement in the South China Seas as also to reinforce its own nuclear deterrent. What has supposedly drawn attention in Washington is that the WU 14 not only has the ability to deliver conventional and nuclear weapons “ on the edge of space” but also in its capability to avoid U.S. missile defences.

Military and strategic analysts believe that the timing of the testing of WU 14 was also significant—it was arranged to coincide with the visit of Fan Changlong, the Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission to the United States and his talks with senior American officials during the trip. In other words the fourth testing of the WU 14 was supposedly to “increase” the bargaining power of the People’s Liberation Army.

To argue that the WU 14 tests will significantly alter China’s bargaining chips over the South China Seas is a bit farfetched; and the same goes for assuming that Washington will be “dropping” everything it has going in that part of the world just because of one supersonic test by the Chinese. The United States, for its part, has been routinely carrying out esoteric tests in land and in space and much of these with military implications; and nations around the world—notably China and Russia—have not abandoned any of their strategic ambitions. For that matter none of these supersonic or hypersonic tests have pushed the major antagonists to a nuclear precipice.

The agenda before the United States and China is not just the Spratlys; and Beijing realizes that Washington will not give up its strategic interests there especially as it involves some of the closest allies like the Philippines and Taiwan and to a certain extent a new found partnership in Vietnam. For that matter the other South East Asian nations involved in the dispute want the involvement of the United States even if they would not want to say so openly and loudly. If Beijing is under the impression that the WU 14 is going to frighten Washington away from the Asia Pacific is just wishful and fanciful thinking.

There is no doubt that China’s leaders will continue to keep the military heat to the extent it can in the Spratlys and beyond even while trying to convince the nations in the immediate neighborhood and outside of its “peaceful” intentions. By the same token Beijing is not naïve as to believe that countries in the Asia Pacific including the United States and Japan are going to draw down their strategic interests or assets just to humor the East Asian giant.

In all that fuss and excitement of the supersonic WU 14 and the so-called heightened tensions between United States and China, there is something that needs to be kept in mind: the two countries are not locked in a uni-dimensional relationship that is restricted to only the strategic aspect. Both the United States and China are woven in a complex relationship that includes areas of cooperation in economic, business, environment, and terrorism to mention a few. China may be seen as a rising economic power at a time when the United States’ is on the wane. But the fact remains that China would want to see a strong economic United States as that is in the best interests of China.

In the 1970s and 1980s a lot of people in America, especially law makers, lost sleep over a rising economic Japan posting hefty trade surpluses of USD 20 billion or so with the United States. But in 2014 Japan’s surplus with the United States was to the tune of USD 67 billion. And if few are openly hostile to this today it is because both Washington and Tokyo even from the turbulent periods knew how to manage a complex and complicated relationship that went beyond economics and trade, beyond automobiles, toys, television sets and textiles.

The same thing could be said about the China-United States trade relationship. In 2014 the total value of United States’ export to China was about USD 124 billion while it imported to the tune of about USD 467 billion making a net deficit of USD 343 billion. In the first four months of 2015 China has posted a trade surplus of USD 109 billion with the United States. The bottom line question: would leaders of China want to ruin an extensive economic relationship by persisting with short-sighted military goals? Not likely.

(Currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication and International Relations at SRM University, Chennai, Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami served the The Hindu Newspaper as Special Correspondent in Singapore and Washington and can be reached at sridhar54k@gmail.com. Views expressed here are personal.)

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