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Why China Will Contain Itself

US-China relations are uncomfortable, but it's probably not be the start of a new cold war.

| Thu Jun. 20, 2013 1:27 PM EDT

Warships have recently been maneuvering as China faces off against, among other countries, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This unsettling development has played well in Washington as the Obama administration announced a "pivot" to or "rebalancing" in Asia and a new strategy that visibly involves playing China's neighbors off against the Middle Kingdom in what could only be considered a twenty-first century containment policy.

From Washington's point of view, there have, however, been more ominous aspects to China's new moves in the world. In bilateral trade with Japan, Russia, Iran, India, and Brazil, China has been working to bypass the US dollar. Similarly, China and Britain have established a currency swap line, linking the yuan to the pound, and France plans to do the same thing with regard to the euro in an attempt to turn Paris into a major offshore trading hub for the yuan.

Nor was it an accident that Xi's first trip abroad took him to Moscow. There is no more crucial economic and strategic relationship for the Chinese leadership. As much as Moscow won't accept NATO's infinite eastward expansion, Beijing won't accept the US pivot strategy in the Pacific, and Moscow will back it in that.

I was in Singapore recently when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel dropped in at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asian defense and security forum, to sell the new US focus on creating what would essentially be an anti-Chinese alliance in South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Pacific. Major General Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA, was there as well listening attentively to Hagel, ready to outline a Chinese counter-strategy that would highlight Beijing's respect for international law, its interest in turbo-charging trade with Southeast Asia, but most of all its unwillingness to yield on any of the escalating territorial disputes in the region. As he said, "The reason China constantly patrols the South China Sea and East Sea is because China considers this to be sovereign territory."

In this way, the dream and nationalism are proving uncomfortable bedfellows abroad as well as at home. Beijing sees the US pivot as a not-so-veiled declaration of the coming of a new Cold War in the Asia-Pacific region, and a dangerous add-on to the Pentagon's Air-Sea Battle concept, a militarized approach to China's Pacific ambitions as the (presumed) next rising power on the planet.

At the Shangri-La, Hagel did call for "a positive and constructive relationship with China" as an "essential part of America's rebalance to Asia." That's where the new US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—essentially the economic arm of the pivot—would fit in. China's Ministry of Commerce is reportedly even studying the possibility of being part of it.

There is, however, no way a resurgent Beijing would accept unfettered US economic control across the region, nor is there any guarantee that TPP will become the dominant trading group in the Asia-Pacific. After all, with its economic muscle China is already leading the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that includes all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.

In April, after visiting Beijing, Secretary of State John Kerry began spinning his own "Pacific dream" during a stopover in Tokyo. Yet Beijing will remain wary of Washington's dreaming, as the Chinese leadership inevitably equates any dream that involves moves everywhere in Asia as synonymous with a desire to maintain perpetual American dominance in the region and so stunt China's rise.

However nationalism comes into play in the disputed, energy-rich islands of the South China Sea, the notion that China wants to rule even the Asian world, no less the world, is nonsense. At the same time, the roadmap promoted at the recent Obama-Xi summit remains at best a fragile dream, especially given the American pivot and Edward Snowden's recent revelations about the way Washington has been hacking Chinese computer systems. Perhaps the question in the region is simply whose dream will vanish first when faced with economic and military realities.

At least theoretically, a strategic adjustment by both sides could ensure that the dream of cooperation, of Chimerica, might prove less them chimerical. That, however, would imply that Washington was capable of acknowledging "core" Chinese national interests—on this Xi's dream is explicit indeed. Whatever the confusions and difficulties the Chinese leadership faces, Beijing seems to understand the realities behind Washington's strategic intentions. One wonders whether the reverse applies.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times, an analyst for the Russian network RT and al-Jazeera English, as well as a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Obama Does Globalistan. Follow him on Facebook.

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