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Sino-US relations set to reshape Asia-Pacific scene

In his year-end press conference, President Barack Obama announced he will nominate Senator Max Baucus this month as US Ambassador to China. Baucus will take up his post during a period of significant uncertainty in bilateral relations that is reshaping the Asian geopolitical landscape.

This key moment comes after substantial change in 2013, with the once-in-a-generation transition of leadership in Beijing, and the US "pivot" of foreign policy toward Asia. Given this fluid, unpredictable environment, tensions between Washington and Beijing have come as no surprise.

On December 19, for instance, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel responded angrily to the near-collision of a US warship and a Chinese naval vessel on December 5, accusing China of acting in a "very incendiary [way] that could be a trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation". Hagel claims the Chinese vessel cut in front of the US ship, but Beijing maintains that its vessel was conducting "normal patrols" and adhered to "strict protocol". The near-miss was the most serious Sino-US confrontation in the South China Sea for several years.

Troublingly, this incident follows soon after another diplomatic flare-up in November when Beijing, without consultation, declared an air "self-defence identification zone" which covers islands which both Japan and China claim as their own. While such air zones are commonplace across the world, Washington has expressed concern to Beijing about both its unilateral imposition, and the warning to aircraft that if they do not comply with submitting flight plans unspecified "emergency defensive measures" will be taken.

These and other demonstrations of Beijing's assertiveness in 2013, including its recent refusal to participate in UN arbitration over a territorial conflict with the Philippines, have raised tension in Asia. In turn, this has complicated the Sino-US relationship.

A crucial question is whether, following the inauguration of the new leadership in China last March, we are witnessing the rise of a much more bold and forceful nation on the world stage. If so, 2013 would mark the beginning of at least a partial departure from Beijing's previous grand strategy - premised on a gradual, peaceful and low-profile rise to power.

Certainly, Chinese President Xi Jinping's assumption of power in 2013 has been confident and assured. But his precise international intentions remain unclear.

For instance, Xi has repeatedly voiced his desire for a relationship with the United States based upon peaceful cooperation. This was most strongly emphasised in June when he called for a "new type of great power relationship" at his first summit meeting with Obama.

This is an audacious goal, but it still lacks any obvious definition. Given foreign policy tensions between China and the United States, however, the obvious way to better ties is in the economic sphere where there are substantial shared interests in sustainable global growth.

Even on this agenda, however, the two's interests are by no means identical. This is underlined by Washington's current championing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade initiative, while Beijing is simultaneously promoting its alternative Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

And it is in this context of competition that the United States and China are looking to enhance their regional influence. While both countries have formidable military and economic assets to enable their ambitions, 2013 demonstrated Washington has an edge in the "soft power" stakes.

Thus, in numerous (but by no means all) key Asian countries, Washington's pivot towards the region is generally welcomed. Meanwhile, there is considerable angst and concern about Beijing's growing assertiveness.

In the Philippines, for instance 81 per cent of the population now regard the United States as a "partner" and only 3 per cent as an "enemy", according to Pew Global, compared to 22 per cent and 39 per cent respectively for China. In South Korea, the counterpart numbers for the United States as "partner" are 69 per cent and "enemy" 4 per cent, compared to 27 per cent and 17 per cent for China. And, in Japan, the data is 76 per cent and 2 per cent for the United States, compared to 11 per cent and 40 per cent for China.

While not uniform through Asia, these patterns of public opinion can only complicate the realisation of Beijing's regional ambitions. And this is one reason why Xi was conflicted in 2013 between his apparent desire for a more assertive China on the world stage, and his recognition that the country's power needs underpinning by better diplomacy so there is greater international understanding (albeit not necessarily acceptance) of the country's motivations and intentions.

With multiple potential flashpoints in 2014, it is crucial that Beijing now doubles down on enhancing its regional and global diplomacy. Unless this happens, international perceptions of the country could deteriorate further, fuelling the possibility of miscalculation and an incident triggering an explosive escalation of tension.

Andrew Hammond is a former geopolitical analyst at Oxford Analytica and was a special adviser in the UK government of Tony Blair.


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