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UPDATED: July 27, 2015 No. 31 JULY 30, 2015
Uncharted Waters

Shortly after the seventh round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), a wide-ranging annual dialogue between senior Chinese and U.S. officials held in Washington, D.C., in late June, Beijing Review's op-ed contributor An Gang interviewed Robert S. Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College and an associate with the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. Ross' 2014 claim that China-U.S. relations were at their worst since the two countries normalized diplomatic ties in the late 1970s drew widespread attention. Excerpts of the interview follow:

An Gang: After the conclusion of the seventh S&ED, do you still believe that the China-U.S. relations are undergoing a critical moment or downward spiral?

Robert S. Ross: The results of the S&ED reflect the ongoing trend in U.S.-China relations. While there was considerable progress toward cooperation on bilateral non-security issues and on global cooperation, the United States maintained its firm resistance to Chinese activities in the South China Sea. The ability of the United States and China to cooperate despite deteriorating security relations underscores the fundamental difference between U.S.-Soviet Cold War relations and contemporary U.S.-China relations. But security relations remain the most important aspect of great power relations, and the development of adversarial relations in East Asia is very worrisome.

As to the maritime security issue in China-U.S. relations, how do you evaluate its future development? Is it becoming a core issue of risk between our two countries?

The maritime security issue is the most important issue in U.S.-China relations. It involves U.S. and Chinese defense spending, weapons acquisition, alliance relations and the risk of crisis dynamics. U.S.-China relations in the South China Sea will be difficult to stabilize, and it will be even more difficult to reverse the current trend and strengthen cooperative relations. Improved security relations will require an extended period of U.S. and Chinese restraint that will contribute to mutual confidence in each other's strategic intentions.

Would you please give us a further explanation on the "restraint" you have mentioned just now? What kind of policy orientations do both China and the United States require for great power and regional stability? Does the United States need to recognize China's legitimized interest in the South China Sea?

The rise of China is necessarily a difficult process for the great powers. As China seeks to be proactive and enterprising, there will be increased U.S.-China conflict. For the United States and China to avoid unnecessary tension and to maximize bilateral cooperation and stability throughout East Asia, both countries will have to make important contributions. For China, this will require the Chinese leadership to better use improved Chinese capabilities and adjust to China's emergence as a great power. As China rises, it will understandably seek a greater voice in regional affairs commensurate with its greater capabilities. But to avoid region-wide apprehension and U.S. perceptions of Chinese belligerence and of Chinese challenges to U.S. strategic partnerships, Beijing must exercise restraint and patience. "Too much, too soon" will enviably elicit U.S. and region-wide opposition to China's rise. As China rises, it will achieve greater maritime security, but diplomacy matters in great power relations.

For the United States, it must recognize that minimizing unnecessary U.S.-China conflict requires U.S. strategic adjustment to the rise of China, i.e., "strategic engagement." This will require that the United States negotiate with China, acknowledge important Chinese security interests, and accommodate changes to the regional security order. A confident U.S. leadership will understand that the United States retains significant maritime advantages and that its East Asian allies will continue to cooperate with the United States, even should Washington make concessions to a rising China. The United States must not assess every Chinese initiative as a challenge to U.S. security requiring resistance. Compromise may not always be possible, but Washington should be prepared to exercise restraint and mutual accommodation to the rise of China.

Do you feel encouraged at the recent development of the military-to-military relationship between China and the United States, especially the progress that has been made in formulating a code of conduct on warship and airplane contact in and above the high sea?

The United States and China have made impressive gains in military diplomacy. Bilateral military cooperation has reached deeper into our two military establishments. Deepening military cooperation can contribute to the development of communication channels that can reduce the likelihood of unintended crisis escalation. Nonetheless, even as U.S.-China military diplomacy has expanded, maritime security relations have deteriorated. This contradiction underscores the limited potential for military diplomacy to influence developments in great power security relations.

Looking at the current situation in the South China Sea, do you expect that more severe confrontations might take place, and why? What might be your advice to the Chinese Government on how to deal with its territorial and maritime disputes with its neighboring countries under new circumstances, if joint development proposals and code of conducts negotiation have trouble moving forward?

The prospect for heightened tension in the South China Sea cannot be underestimated. Further Chinese activities will place pressure on U.S. alliance relations and naval interests and elicit increased U.S. resolve to challenge Chinese initiatives. On the other hand, China can be expected to resist U.S. challenges. This dynamic can develop significant momentum. To halt this trend, China might consider a prolonged period of diplomatic stability in which it consolidates the status quo, rather than seek new gains. A South China Sea code of conduct would be helpful, but many regional states would likely resist a binding agreement. Moreover, the sources of regional instability can persist despite a multilateral commitment to cooperative relations.

Somebody believes that the basic structure of the future world order will be a bipolar one and results of a "grand bargain" between the United States and China will play a decisive role in reshaping the world. Do you agree with that?

Whereas many actors participate in global politics, U.S.-China bipolarity dominates the East Asian strategic structure. Japan remains dependent on the U.S.-Japan alliance, and Russia is preoccupied with its ongoing economic decline and U.S.-Russia tension in Europe. A U.S.-China "grand bargain" will be difficult to develop and even more difficult to sustain. The fundamental challenge in East Asia is the rise of China. This is not a static situation, but it is rather an evolving dynamic that will pose a succession of challenges to U.S.-China relations. In this context, should China's relative capabilities continue to improve, the United States and China will have to renegotiate repeatedly their strategic relationship and the regional order. This will be a difficult, competitive, and protracted process.

It seems that a China policy review is going to take place in Washington D.C. and an academic discussion--or even debate--is ongoing. What is your evaluation? Somebody in the United States urged the American Government not to try to give China a tough time when it tries to play a more important role in global affairs. What is your idea?

The dominant perspective in the United States reflects widespread concern that China's apparent "relentless" diplomatic offensive since 2009 challenges the regional stability and the U.S. alliance system and that there [is] no indication that China is prepared to slow its advance. In this context, the major policy debate is over how the United States should deal with China to curtail its regional goals. Few observers acknowledge any U.S. contribution to regional instability or to Chinese policymaking or the importance of mutual accommodation. Thus, the few specialists arguing for U.S. policy moderation have had minimal influence on U.S. policy.

What are your expectations on the outcome of the forthcoming state visit by President Xi Jinping to the U.S. this September?

The outcome of the September U.S.-China summit in Washington will be somewhat similar to the outcome of the seventh S&ED. I expect that President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama will announce a large number of agreements on global and on non-security bilateral issues. These agreements make a significant contribution to bilateral cooperation. Nonetheless, in private discussions, the United States will continue to press China to clarify its intentions regarding the South China Sea territorial disputes and to moderate its maritime security initiatives. The ongoing U.S.-China differences over maritime security issues will likely contribute to a relatively formal summit environment, in contrast to the warm and personal environment that President Xi and President Obama established at the California summit in June 2012.

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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