Will US-China relations sink or swim?

Will US-China relations sink or swim?

A hosepipe fight between US and Chinese sailors in the South China Sea has put a temporary dampener on the feelgood glow created by secretary of state Hillary Clinton`s recent Beijing visit...

A hosepipe fight between US and Chinese sailors in the South China Sea has put a temporary dampener on the feelgood glow created by secretary of state Hillary Clinton`s recent Beijing visit. China`s foreign ministry angrily accused the Pentagon today of breaking maritime law, distorting the truth, and engaging in "totally unacceptable" behaviour.

Chinese military officials went further, hinting that the Impeccable, an unarmed US ocean surveillance vessel intercepted on Sunday off Hainan island by five Chinese ships, was on a spying mission. If so, this would be unsurprising. Among other facilities, Hainan houses a base for China`s ballistic missile submarine fleet. It is an obvious target for US military intelligence-gatherers.

In April 2001, a US spy plane was forced down over the island after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter. It was George Bush`s first international crisis; he was obliged to write and say sorry. In 2002, another supposedly innocent American survey ship, the Bowditch, got into a similar scrape in the Yellow Sea.

Beijing has repeatedly protested US naval incursions into its "exclusive economic zones", 200-mile nautical no-go areas such as that around Hainan. Washington has not ratified the UN`s 1982 Law of the Sea treaty that created the zones and maintains its ships operate in international waters. It claims to be protecting its commercial interests in busy South China Sea shipping lanes traversed by half the world`s oil tankers.

Although world oil prices rose briefly in reaction, the Impeccable incident is hardly on a par with the confrontation between waterborne western imperialists and fanatical Yangtze River nationalists depicted in The Sand Pebbles, the 1966 movie drama starring Steve McQueen. Regional analysts have downplayed its importance, arguing both countries have bigger fish to fry.

Clinton certainly devoted considerable energy in Beijing to stressing the need for joint efforts to fight global recession, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. With an uncanny choice of metaphor given recent events, she declared: "We are truly going to rise or fall together. We are in the same boat and thankfully, we are rowing in the same direction."

All the same, this latest spat could serve as a timely reminder of the many fault lines that run through Sino-American relations, which even a post-Bush policy of closer bilateral engagement and co-operation cannot wholly hide. If the Obama administration was in danger of glossing over these points of friction, the Impeccable provided a reality check.

Accelerating military competition in the Asia-Pacific region is one major area of concern. China`s latest 14.9% annual increase in military spending, its recently confirmed plans to build aircraft carriers, and its evident intention to project "blue water" naval power eastwards into the Pacific foretell a significant challenge to US dominance by mid-century or earlier.

Possible flashpoints include Chinese attempts to thwart a notional American defence of Taiwan, sovereignty disputes over islands in the South China Sea and western Pacific, associated disagreements over oil, gas and seabed mineral exploitation rights, and policing of international sea lanes.

The two sides recently agreed to resume regular military contacts, broken off last year after Bush sold $6.5bn in arms to Taiwan. But the agreement, specifically intended to avoid "misunderstandings", did not prevent the Impeccable incident. Speaking recently, Admiral Timothy Keating, head of US Pacific Command, complained of a continuing lack of transparency and candour on the Chinese side.

"It`s our desire to have more exchanges with the Chinese. We want to do more with them," Keating said. But Beijing had shown no interest, for example, in a US offer to host military-to-military talks with Taiwan. Despite Clinton`s assertion that a strong China could help boost global security, concerns persisted about its military expansion and its development of "area-denial" weapons and anti-satellite and cyber-warfare capabilities, he said.

This week`s fierce Chinese crackdown in Tibet, Beijing`s snarling rejection of state department criticism of its human rights record, and its ongoing obduracy on trade and currency issues present additional tripwires for advocates of unconditional engagement.

China`s blocking last week of an American move in the UN security council to condemn Sudan`s expulsion of aid workers from Darfur showed how, on some key issues, China, far from rowing together with the US in the same boat, is not even on board. Next month`s G20 summit in London, when Barack Obama and China`s president, Hu Jintao, will discuss co-ordinated action to beat the recession, will be the biggest test yet of a relationship holed below the waterline. It could be sink or swim.

By Simon Tisdall, guardian.co.uk

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