#33 event report: China and the USA

March 25th, 2014, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Prof. Robert Ross, Professor of Political Science
Boston College and Associate, John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University
Prof. YU Tiejun
Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University


This month ThinkIN China to welcomed two renowned speakers for a special double event examining various aspects of China’s Maritime Security in East Asia. 15 years ago, China launched its first diesel submarine. In the context of China’s astonishing, well-publicised development in other areas, one would be forgiven for assuming that naval development has taken place at a heady rate since then, however, Professor Ross began the evening with the surprising suggestion that, in many ways, Chinese naval development in recent years has been very limited. In fact, he went on to argue China is still yet to become a naval power of any real significance in East Asia. Of course, this is not because it would fail to outmatch any of its neighbours, but instead that it still fails to make any real sort of challenge against the powerful ally that stands behind these neighbours – ready to step in and defend them if a situation was to occur. The latter is the world’s number 1 power, the US, whose alliances with Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam and – perhaps most potently – Japan means that it still dominates East Asian waters.

Ross however went on to explain that of course the situation has seen some development in recent years – describing how naval developments by the Chinese, though not great enough to fully challenge the US, have still reached a level at which they could cause losses on the American side if a war was to be waged at sea. This is a cost that previously would not have had to be considered, yet nevertheless Ross warns us against imagining that this means the Chinese are gearing-up to challenge US supremacy in the area. Past experience shows that the Chinese have been – and will be in future – cautious. However, the current situation is that of broadened levels of presence and surveillance – in particular the Chinese vessels that keep a long-term presence in the vicinity of the contested diaoyu islands. The latter does not act in direct opposition to US presence but does underline the fact that the Chinese have a presence that can certainly not now be overlooked.

Looking to the future, Ross took us through various challenges posed to the state of US-China relations in 2012, namely when China displayed assertive behaviour towards to the Philippines and in the sending of Chinese ships to challenge Japanese vessels over the diaoyu islands. Though neither of these skirmishes were direct challenges to the US, tensions were undoubtedly heightened and though the US decided not to intervene they did response by expanding levels of cooperation and alliance with their East Asian allies and thereby reminding China of their own presence in the area. However, in terms of future development, China’s desire for a bigger navy will be restricted by a number of factors including cost, technology and, most specifically, the need to balance it with land requirements: with 14 neighbours, 4 of which have nuclear capabilities , China is growing in a ‘dangerous neighbourhood’ and therefore maritime security is unlikely to be their prime concern. ON the other hand, US policy since 1999 has made it clear that they take ever increase in Chinese power as a challenge to US supremacy.

But what if China succeeds in juggling development on both the land and at sea? Ross boldly stated that we live in a world where war is normal. And a world where we have witnessed too many times the cold fact that it is the power-transition wars that destroy the global order are the nastiest of them all (think about WW1, WW2, the Napoleonic Wars…) Ross however told the room to relax – he’s optimistic, wars don’t happen accidentally and both sides will hope to avoid it as far as possible. Instead, if a war is to be fought, Ross predicts that this will take place in the water. The land of China and the land of the United States are not going to be threatened which, consequently, means that the stakes are lower and the war is thus less likely to escalate. Things finished on the positive note that if the worst clash to take place in the process of China’s rise is a limited naval war between the US and China then things aren’t so bad.

Professor YU then took over to focus on the area of relations between China and Japan. In the last two years, tensions between the neighbours have openly intensified over the diaoyu/senkaku islands in the South China Sea. Professor YU warned that the fundamental element of patriotism on both sides mean that the coastguards are prepared to act with severity and, indeed, there is no crisis management mechanism between the 2 guards – it is the captains on each sides’ ships who are responsible for making the arbitrary decision of whether or not to launch an attack in each case, putting the conflict on a precariously unpredictable path. Though attempts were made to initiate a maritime security dialogue between the two sides last year, each side displayed little inclination to resolve the issue – not least, Yu states, because both are coming from fundamentally irreconcilable beliefs. Things are further complicated by the long-standing alliance between Japan and the US. Yu reinforced Ross by describing the US as the ‘puppeteers’ of maritime security in the region and with the 7th US fleet being based in Japan, it is clear that were China to actively provoke Japan, America would aid Japan. However, we were reminded that it isn’t in the interest of US to side with either – beyond this issue, in many areas it is to the advantage of the US to be an ally with China. However, if something was to happen, Yu gave a salutary reminded of the rich tangle of emotions tied up with the issue of the islands and, not least, the refusal to ‘lose face’ from either side which means – he predicts – if something were to occur, any conflict would rapidly escalate.

Lastly, Professor Yu touched upon the impact of the UN’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ — the seazone over which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources) in the region of the South China Sea. Citing various recent skirmishes, our speaker described how the US and China are having to work out how to navigate around the other’s presence in the area in a relationship that is increasingly connected with regional security too, finishing on the reminder that there are always three – not two – players to be considered within the conflict between Japan and China and, more broadly, the sea.


The first question of the night immediately drew our attention back to the controversial issue of the islands dispute, with Professor Yu further emphasising the fundamental ideological schism between Japan and China on the issue which makes a resolution currently such a distant prospect. Meanwhile, Professor Ross suggested that if we want to fully understand the issue we should not be focusing on which way the law would direct things to go because, after all, legal regulations in the area hardly apply to the issue at hand. From an American perspective however, Professor Ross felt that the issue was nothing to get worked-up about – let the two sides get on with their ‘screaming match’ he encouraged.

We moved onto a question which had clearly occurred to many in the room: how far can we use Russia’s recent activity in Ukraine as a possible model for a similar unilateral change to the status quo being made by China in the future? Both speakers agreed on the cautious (though indubitably cheering) response that the Chinese rarely initiate dramatic shifts to the status quo such as is occurring currently in the Crimea, with Ross adding that the military and political costs that would be at stake for the Chinese in making a unilateral move that posed a threat to the US are far greater than any incurred by the Russians in this case.

Further questions focused on Obama’s handling of Sino-US relations in conjunction with other alliances around the world, with Yu commenting that China’s current greatest challenge is domestic, not the US. Having said that, Sino-US relations patently cannot be bad if either side wishes to continue to flourish in the current global environment. We finished with an analogy of today’s situation between the two great powers and events prior to events of the Sino-Japanese war and 1914 (mindful of upcoming anniversaries this year for both.) Professor Ross fiercely discouraged any analogies with 1914, describing how East Asia has been the most peaceful area on earth since the Cold War and lacks the set-up of many countries all heaped on top of each other that made Europe so inflammatory.

Report by: Clio Chartres