Strategically speaking – and that is the language most nations best understand – China and the United States have yet to reach an agreement on each other’s acceptable sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Since China is attempting to reassert influence exercised by the Middle Kingdom centuries ago, and the United States is defending influence largely established since World War II, there is no historical precedent for a strong China and a strong United States to coexist in the Western Pacific. Neither side knows what is acceptable to its citizens or tolerable for its national interests.
Even though neither China nor the United States wants to or is interested in infringing upon the territorial integrity of the other, both countries are expansive in their definition of what it means to be a great nation. Both countries are adept at using proxies to advance their own interests. And neither side wants to live in a world dominated by the other. Ideologically, Americans firmly believe that communism is an anathema to the world community; Chinese, while wanting more government accountability, are convinced that the unbridled individuality and selfishness of the American capitalist system would undermine Chinese social stability. Nationalistically, Chinese are convinced that Americans have exploited their weakness in the past and are seeking to contain their nation both now and in the future. These commonly held convictions are not a strong foundation on which to build mutual trust and tolerance.
Chinese and American statesmen have little flexibility in adopting conciliatory policies toward the other. It is easier, for political reasons, to assume a relatively "tough" position on issues of emotional importance to their respective domestic audiences. The fact that the relationship between China and the United States is assuming characteristics of strategic competition further limits the ranges of acceptable compromise. Under such conditions, a truly cooperative relationship becomes difficult.
Despite the fact that neither side intends aggressively to attack the vital interests of the other, Sino-American relations will likely remain hostage to a balance of power deemed unacceptable to influential factions in both capitals. In this environment, developments have a way of determining policy far more than rational thought. Sino-American relations -- even without the issue of Taiwan -- are inherently unstable for at least the short-term.
August 26, 2012