The USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer, just made a port call in Qingdao, China. The admiral who commands U.S. forces in the Pacific met with the admiral who commands China's North Sea Fleet. The two navies conducted a signals drill.
These seem like routine events. To understand why the Wall Street Journal (http://tiny.cc/…) and the New York Times (http://tiny.cc/…) deemed them newsworthy, take a look at three headlines that appeared a month earlier, after Chinese leaders raged against an international court ruling that China's claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea has no legal basis.
"The 'Inevitable War' Between the U.S. and China" (Newsweek: http://tiny.cc/…).
"Is the South China Sea the Stage for the Next World War?" (The National Interest: http://tiny.cc/…).
"The Coming War With China" (Time: http://tiny.cc/…).
What makes those headlines particularly shocking is that nobody doubts a war with China could make the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts look like tiddlywinks matches. Lives would be lost, maybe lots of them. Some $600 billion a year in U.S.-China trade, including $20 billion in U.S. ag exports, would screech to a halt. Geopolitical history would hurtle down a new and dangerous path.
But if the U.S. Navy is making port calls in China and our commanders are drinking tea with theirs, how serious is the risk of war, really? There are at least three plausible ways to reconcile the seeming contradiction between the dramatic headlines and the humdrum reality.
--Theory one: This is the calm before the storm. Tensions between the U.S. and China are grave and could yet end in war. That American and Chinese diplomats and military leaders continue to meet and greet is a hopeful sign but it doesn't mean the tensions can be resolved short of armed conflict. After all, in 1941 the U.S. and Japan continued to negotiate right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (http://tiny.cc/…).
--Theory two: The headlines are examples of sensationalized "yellow journalism." Yes, the Chinese would like to reduce American influence in Asia. And, yes, the U.S. is determined to stand up for freedom of navigation and protect our Asian allies against Chinese intimidation as they stand up for their competing claims in the South China Sea. So, yes, if we keep sending warships through the South China Sea and China keeps militarizing atolls in the sea that under international law it doesn't own, war is possible. But is it "Inevitable?" Is it "Coming?" Seems like a stretch.
--Theory three: Sanity prevails. Because tensions are running high, and because neither side wants war, both are taking steps to prevent it. Both agree cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese militaries is especially important. That doesn't mean China is backing down; in the wake of the court ruling, China and Russia announced they would conduct a joint military drill in the South China Sea (http://tiny.cc/…). In his comments to the press aboard the Benfold, the U.S. Pacific commander criticized that drill. But China's navy also does joint drills with the U.S. Even with the international-court decision looming in July, five Chinese navy ships took part in the U.S. Navy's multinational RIMPAC exercise in Hawaii (http://tiny.cc/…).
These theories are not mutually exclusive. The truth might well be some blend of them. We have to hope that the blend is heavily weighted toward the second and third theories.
The U.S.-China relationship is nothing if not complicated. In some respects the two countries have vastly differing interests. They're at different stages of history—the U.S. a mature great power, China a rising one. They certainly represent different theories of governance—democracy versus authoritarianism. Sometimes these two very different nations cooperate—economically, politically and militarily. Sometimes they compete—economically, politically and militarily.
Because human beings run both sides, plans can go awry. Sometimes people get careless. Sometimes careful precautions fail. Accidents happen.
Which is why we should worry about tensions between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea. Neither side seems inclined to back down. Both are deploying ships and planes. There's a real risk of an incident occurring and event spinning out of control. The more the two navies talk to each other, the better the chance of avoiding disaster.
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