Sep 12, 2012 06:32 PM

Closer Look: Why War Is Not an Option


There won't be a war in East Asia.

The United States has five military alliances in the western Pacific: with South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore, and American battleships are busy patrolling the seas. Without a go-ahead from Washington, there is no possibility of a hot war between battleships of sovereign countries here. As to conflicts between fishing boats and patrol boats, that's not really a big deal.

The Chinese have to ponder several questions: If the country has battleship wars with Japan, can it win without using ground-based missiles? Will the war escalate if missiles are deployed? What will happen if the war continues with no victory in sight?

In the last few days, one country bought islands, and the other announced the base points and the baselines of its territorial waters. But look closely, China and Japan have at least two things in common in this hostile exchange: At home they fan up nationalism, and in the international arena no activities have exceeded the scope of previous, respective claims on sovereignty.

This means there is no possibility of a war in East Asia, not even remotely. 

From the East Sea to the South Sea, China has reached a new low in relations with Asian neighbors. It's hard to remove the flashpoints in territorial disputes, but the country can surely reduce their impacts. And the key is relations with the United States.

When the United States and China were warm to each other in the first decade of this century, our ties with ASEAN were also the closest. As the former cooled down, the latter became marked with disputes and conflicts.

China's external environment reached the high-water mark in 2008, when Ma Ying-jeou was elected Taiwanese leader and Sino-U.S. cooperation in the war on terror was still underway. After Barack Obama entered the White House in 2008, the two countries failed to introduce positive interactions. The G2 proved to be unrealistic. Bilateral relations entered a downward spiral. The two countries cooperate only when it's absolutely necessary, fight against each other on a number of issues, and walk their own walks on many others. The relations look OK on the surface, but underneath are frozen.

The strongest link between China and the United States used to be trade, which has suffered a heavy blow since the economic crisis. Trade as a card has lost its power, not only between China and the United States, but with China's southeastern neighbors as well. It can hardly act as a deterrent with Japan, too, since we are on different parts of the same supply chain, and any punishment will cause significant pain at home. The weight of trade and human rights topics in foreign relations is giving way. Politics is back to being pure politics.

Sino-U.S. relations are already, and increasingly, complicated. Rows between a dominant power and an emerging power are coupled with ideological differences. There are no easy solutions, but one can easily identify ways to prevent factors further complicating the matter. For instance, China has no strategic interests in Syria and has no obligation to stand with Russia. A realist must have reservations and make choices. When needed, China should be able to forgo old friends, especially when there is no friendship in the first place.

The author is managing editor of Caixin Media

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