By Azhar Ahmad

January 2014 marks the thirty fifth anniversary of formal relations between two great powers of today- the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States of America. It was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States of America, who established full diplomatic relations with PRC on January 1, 1979. The move entailed recognition of “One China” policy and severing normal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The credit of bringing the two giants to tie the knot may be attributed to various factors: Henry Kissinger’s back door diplomacy, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, Pakistan’s assistance in providing a conduit, changing geopolitical and economic realities etc. A lot has happened on the globe since; China that had just adopted a reform agenda under Deng has emerged as a strong economic power, while the US which was at its peak, is on the decline. The relation has seen many ups and downs over the years and the recent spate of accusations (and counter accusations) over the announcement of an ADIZ by China over the East China Sea has forced the analysts worldwide to once again speculate the future of this important relationship.

China and the US have an ambiguous relationship; they are neither friends nor enemies. During the Second World War the US helped China in its war against Japan. However, in 1949, after a bloody civil war, the communist led by Mao Zedong took control of mainland China and Chiang Kai-shek was forced to flee to Taiwan. Since the communist were supported by Russia and were closely allied to the socialist ideology, the US continued to support the previous regime now established in Taiwan. Thus the relationship between mainland China and US soared till the Sino-Soviet split provided an opportunity to both the countries to come close using the good offices of Pakistan. The relations remained generally stable during the Cold War but the demise of the Soviet Union again brought the two face to face with each other. The absence of a common enemy and the fact that resurgent China was viewed as a potential threat to its hegemony by US policy makers was reason enough for both the countries to view each other with suspicion. While economic relations between the two countries were expanding, the US and its Western allies made every effort to contain China. However, China continued to follow the advice of Deng Xiaoping: “hide your strength, bide your time” and concentrated on internal reforms and economic development avoiding conflict and entanglement.

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In International Relations China is the only country which is attributed to following a ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy. The result is that today China is the second largest economy in the world slated to surpass the US within a decade. Yet, if you talk to Chinese officials or scholars they continue to tell you very humbly that they are a developing nation and have no competition with the US. Nevertheless, the Chinese do realize that they are now a power to be reckoned and respected. This awareness has caused the Chinese to start asserting in certain areas and recent incidents in the East China Sea are but a manifestation of this confidence. The US realizes that it is losing Asia to China and, therefore, it recently reviewed its foreign policy with an injection of “pivot to Asia” notion. It is also wooing India, Japan and other East-Asian countries to check the growing influence of China.

The Japanese and US press is strongly criticizing China for its recent declaration of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in East China Sea and its rather assertive stance on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. However, the world and particularly the US should also realize the uncomfortableness of China by continuous operations of US ships and aircrafts very close to its borders. How would US feel if Chinese ships or aircrafts are operating close to its territorial waters or the airspace? US being a super power should show magnanimity and wisdom. This relationship is very important for stability and peace in the world and needs to be protected from any machismo or misadventure. As the Chinese flex their new-found muscles, it would be important for both the countries to show prudence and keep engaged with each other, because suspicion and misjudgment could be cataclysmic for the entire region. The regional players also need to watch and understand the changing geo-politics and beware of getting involved into any adventurism.

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There are various local factors which can trigger a confrontation among the two great powers vying for increased influence in the region. One, for example, is the continuing obsession of the United States to maintain its bases and forces in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is very important for the US for providing access to the resource rich Central and South Asia and containment of Iran and China. In addition, it gives it leverage to watch over the ‘Silk Route’. Military presence of US in the underbelly of China and Russia will continue to irk both these countries and will remain a source of tension in the region. Japan’s relation with China is another factor which can cause friction between China and US. Recent confrontations between Japan and China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and China’s declaration of the ADIZ is a case in point. Similarly, US’s handling of North Korea is a sensitive issue that needs careful management. US assessment that China may eventually abandon the Pyongyang regime are based on false hopes and when not fulfilled are likely to raise the temperatures.

Many in Beijing are convinced that “pivot to Asia” is primarily an effort in trying to impede China’s peaceful rise and encourage its regional rivals to team up against Beijing. Chinese policy makers have still not shown any visible anger or retaliation but how long and how much will it take for either to lose patience is hard to predict. This is 21st century- Asia’s century- and US needs to tread its path in this region very carefully. The onus of maintaining a friendly relationship rests more on Washington than on Beijing since China’s intentions are very clear- it does not want to get involved in a confrontation, at least not until 2050.