US-China relations are of great concern to much of the world, particularly this region, whether or not Washington and Beijing seem to realise it.

DID it have to take a US-China (G2) trade war, or noises to that effect, to nurture peaceable moves in a hotly contested South China Sea?

Yet that appears to have happened.

When talk of a trade war began, the common worry was a spillover into a geopolitical conflict. It was obvious that there would be no winners in any conflict – trade war, cold war or hot shooting war – or even skirmishes not amounting to a war.

Speculation raged over how a trade conflict between the world’s two largest economies and Pacific powers would draw the rest of this region in, engulfing it in an unmanageable mess. Then there was the possibility that the language and posturing approximating to a trade war were just cover for G2’s larger and worsening geopolitical rivalry.

If that were so, it had its own self-defeating moments. US Defence Secretary James Mattis was earlier due for talks in China but rising tensions diverted him to Vietnam instead. Plans for talks evaporated just when talks were needed. Tensions lingered amid mutual suspicions.

He Xianqing of China’s National Institute for the South China Sea released a report last Monday anticipating more provocative acts from Washington. Although trade disputes hog the headlines, G2’s uneasiness is rather more complex. The US had imposed sanctions on China for buying Russian missiles and fighter jets, and China rebuked the US for selling arms to Taiwan.

Then last month a Chinese warship and its US equivalent almost collided in the disputed Spratly archipelago in a mutual show of brinkmanship. Strategic concerns swiftly became operational alarm.

So just as Mattis was packing for his trip to Beijing, he was made to feel less than welcome there. But that snub was little more than a symbolic gesture. China soon signalled it was keen for Mattis and his Chinese counterpart Gen. Wei Fenghe to meet on the sidelines of the 12th Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Singapore on Thursday.

And so they met, were pictured together, talked frankly for longer than scheduled, and began to work on an invitation for Wei to visit Washington. The thaw had begun.

Military relations between China and Asean countries were even warmer. This was all the more remarkable given that territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain unresolved.

Set occasions such as the Singapore ADMM do help. And they can be useful to any party seeking to tweak them to advantage. To Singapore itself, it was an opportunity to assert its significance as an honest broker, if only in providing a suitable venue for an unofficial G2 chat. To both China and the US, it was a neutral place and a related occasion that were mutually agreeable. And to Asean more generally, the Asean event in a member country helped accentuate “Asean centrality.”

Suddenly, the recent tensions and ill will swiftly cleared. It was time to focus on the positives in mutual relations instead. Part of the promise lies in the agreement reached in the Asean Ministerial Meeting last August for a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. This is particularly designed to relieve tensions and avoid dangerous encounters amid festering maritime disputes.

In Singapore during the week, the participating Defence Ministers went further. They affirmed mutual cooperation in regional counter-terrorism operations and established a network against chemical, biological and radiological threats. They also reached agreement on the world’s first “multilateral air guidelines,” the airborne equivalent of the CoC. The spirit of joint cooperation was thick in the air.

Of particular interest flowing from the 12th ADMM are China’s overtures to Malaysia and Thailand for trilateral military exercises in the Straits of Malacca.

More specifically, these nine-day naval exercises under Peace and Friendship 2018 began yesterday off Port Klang and Port Dickson. Although joint exercises are not new, these are not insignificant either. They have begun despite continuing disputes in the South China Sea and a new Pakatan Harapan Government in Putrajaya. They are significant by demonstrating that if confidence building in sensitive defence matters is possible, it should be possible in other areas of bilateral relations as well.

By implication, mutual confidence building by emphasising the positives should also be possible between China and its perceived rivals. But whatever the prospect of a full G2 warming, other countries are set to get in on this “regional act.”

What are the likely implications of their doing so?

Japan is lately keen to flex its diplomatic muscle in the region, while Australia may be tempted to do likewise. However, since both are regarded as US allies, a double act may be conceived as a US alliance crowding the region that can trigger a China backlash.

India also aspires to reach over from the Indian Ocean region in “Act East” mode, but it could be an overreach. Russia itself is interested in exploring its prospects and potential in East Asia after having been snubbed by the West.

Meanwhile both South Korea and Taiwan have their New Southern Policy and New Southbound Policy in regard to the Asean region. But what remains unclear is what these policies entail and exactly how “new” they really are. As such policies go, who can really match China today in its ambitious outreach programmes?

Even as Asean countries and the US focus on diplomacy and defence cooperation in this region, China is working elsewhere at the same time. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the European Union Naval Force just completed joint exercises in the Gulf of Aden.

This naval cooperation focused on fighting piracy, protecting civilian shipping and other common concerns. It has been conducted for a full decade now, but has lately grown to cover the Mediterranean.

With Russia, China last month conducted massive Vostok 2018 military exercises in the Russian Far East on the cusp of the Pacific region. Such engagements are likely to remain and grow.

Perhaps, with a thaw in the G2 frost, the US Navy (USN) and the PLAN can find it in themselves to conduct joint exercises as well. Last May the US dropped China from its guest list for the Rim of the
Pacific (Rimpac) exercise because of the latter’s conduct in the South China Sea. As a result it seemed that G2 military, especially naval, cooperation had been blown off the table. But then the PLAN contributed a warship to the Kakadu joint exercise with the USN and the Australian Navy in August and September.

It is when engagement seems unlikely because of the challenges that engagement is needed to help resolve the challenges. Should countries opt for engaging in cooperation or engaging in conflict?

If the US and China can work together in the larger common interest to tackle their common concerns, it would help political, diplomatic and economic interests for much of the world.

And since G2 represents the world’s two strongest powers and largest economies, both countries would be the biggest beneficiaries. Would the US and China agree to commit to deep and wide-ranging cooperation?

They would if sense has its way, but not if pride, ego and brinkmanship win the day. In today’s political climate, there can be no guarantee of good sense.

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