THE BLOG
08/08/2016 07:28 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2017

Decoding China-U.S. Relations

Citizens of any nation will naturally rally around their flag when they believe they are under attack, have been offended, or want to flex their muscles. Doing so has implications well beyond their borders when the country in question happens to be a global power, such as in the case of China and the United States (U.S.). That said, there are a variety of dynamics at play that help to shape public opinion, particularly when 'flag waving' is at the heart of the issue. Citizens of any country tend to react when they believe they have common cause, their beliefs are correct, and others' beliefs are wrong.

Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of modern China, said "the China-U.S. relationship can never be too good or too bad", meaning their leaders and people should be realistic about how close their bilateral relationship can be at any given point in time, and should never let their disagreements get so out of hand that it threatens the general peace and prosperity of the two nations. While seemingly simplistic, the quote does accurately encapsulate the general nature of relations between the two nations since Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong first commenced the modern bilateral relationship in 1972.

As noted by Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo, China is not by self-proclamation a missionary power like the U.S.; While both nations have much in common, this is sometimes lost in the bigger picture. As the number one and two economies, the world relies on them, and vice-versa, for national and global economic prosperity. They both compete, in a variety of ways, in the economic, political and military spheres. Both nations have strategic interests and global reach, although they may go about achieving them in different ways. They share an obligation to act responsibly and reasonably toward their neighbors and the world more generally. They also share an astonishing trade and investment relationship with the rest of the world.

While China recognizes America's unique position as the world's sole superpower, its political orientation and national pride dictate that it pursue its own political and developmental path, and an independent foreign policy that it believes is ultimately aimed at achieving peace - with its neighbors and the world. Many countries in Asia, and the world, are highly skeptical about this so-called "peaceful development", pointing to China's unilateral actions in the South China Sea (SCS) as contrary to that objective. In spite of the recent ruling at The Hague against China, the Chinese government, and most of its people, believe that the country's actions are consistent with both recent regional history and international law, based on their own unique perspective of history and international relations.

Part of the reason for the vastly different perspectives on this issue has to do with a genuine belief on the part of both sides that each side is right. China points to previous maps and maritime practices, which were at the time unopposed by other nations. The U.S. (and other nations) see this as inconsistent with modern international maritime law as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which, ironically, China signed on to the very day it first became a legal instrument in 1982 (one contradiction), while the U.S. failed to become a member of UNCLOS (another contradiction).

From the Chinese perspective, the SCS is seen as vital to China's ability to project its naval and air power. Historically and culturally, China has been particularly sensitive to territorial issues, adhering to its long-held principle "we will never yield an inch of land". Deng Xiaoping's diplomatic philosophy can be simply summarized as the "Eight-Character Mantra" -- tāo guāng yǎng huì, yǒu suǒ zuò wéi -- meaning, "hide one's capacities, bide one's time, and seek achievements". That was why, during his time as China's premier, Deng chose to temporarily "set aside disputes and pursue joint development" vis-a-vis territorial disputes such as those involving the SCS and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Deng's successors -- Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao -- followed this economics-focused approach to diplomacy, which enabled China achieve its "peaceful rise" in a relatively short time.

From the Chinese perspective, the Thucydides Trap - wherein a rising power causes fear in an established power, which escalates toward war -- is not inevitable, because China views itself and the U.S. as "different, but not distant", and because the Confucian philosophy advocates "accommodating divergent views" (hé ér bù tóng). Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly said that "the broad Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both China and the U.S.", and proposed a new model of international relations aimed at avoiding confrontation and conflict, respecting one another's political systems and national interests, and pursuing win-win cooperation.

That all sounds good on paper. The question becomes whether and how Confucian philosophy may become more consistent with current international law, whether both sides can reach an understanding about how China's rise may coincide with America's gradual decline as a global power, and how China's neighbors see ongoing territorial issues. As we are at a critical juncture -- given The Hague ruling, China's decision to continue what it is doing in the SCS, and uncertainty about how other regional powers may react in the future - much will depend on how far all sides are willing to reach across the table and genuinely compromise.

In the case of the Philippines and China, given that former Philippine president Fidel Ramos, has become the government's special envoy to China to negotiate SCS issues, a serious effort is being put forth from the Philippine side. If that is met with equal vigor on the Chinese side, there is at least a reasonable chance they can reach an accommodation. However, China's dual strategy of claiming to want to pursue diplomatic negotiations on the SCS dispute while simultaneously continuing its unilateral construction activities on its islands creates an environment unconducive to honest and meaningful negotiation. It remains too early to say how well the talks may develop -- with the Philippines or any other party to the dispute.

It is well understood by the current leaders of both China and the U.S. that it is in their mutual interest, as well as that of the world, that both nations consistently strive to achieve a degree of harmony in their overall relationship, and avoid open conflict, in spite of their many disagreements. President Obama's simple philosophy of "not doing stupid stuff" easily translates into avoiding conflict where it is not absolutely necessary. That has clearly been a guiding principle from the U.S. government's perspective since 2009.

Will that change when either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump take over in the White House in January? Clinton may be expected to maintain a similar approach to China as that of Obama (balanced and measured), while Trump will clearly become more aggressive toward China. Should Trump assume office, it will ultimately be up to China to determine how to respond. We would hope that the Chinese government will choose to take a measured approach and resist the temptation to want to engage in tit-for-tat exchange with the U.S., which would not be in anyone's long-term interests.

It is also our hope that Chinese leaders and people will continue to maintain equilibrium between themselves, their neighbors, and the U.S. Whoever takes over the reins in the White House, maintaining balance with China should remain a priority, in spite of any rhetoric or vitriol that has accompanied the presidential election race. Sino-U.S. relations will remain the world's most important bilateral relationship for many years to come, with implications for the entire world. At the end of the day, the Chinese and American people have much more to gain by maintaining a friendly and cooperative relationship with each other, than the other way around.

It is worth remembering that, in his wisdom more than 200 years ago (when China was the world's largest economy), George Washington said "Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all." Those are words to the wise today on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. It is also worth pointing out that in Chinese, the Pacific Ocean ("tài pínɡ yánɡ") means "an ocean of peace". It will clearly take a great degree of wisdom, an appreciation of history, and a willingness to compromise on all sides, to maintain peace in the ocean of peace.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and co-author of "Global Risk Agility and Decision Making". Follow him at: www.countryrisksolutions.com. Sun Xi is a China-born independent commentary writer based in Singapore. Follow his blog at: www.sgwritings.com/113579.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post.