The rise of China as a global and regional power has created areas where the interests of China and the United States overlap in competition, the senior U.S. military commander in the Pacific told a Stanford audience. But Admiral Samuel Locklear III, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), rejected the traditional realpolitik argument, which predicts inevitable confrontation between the United States, a status quo power, and China, a rising power.
“Historians will say this will lead to conflict,” Locklear said, during an address at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center last Friday. “I don’t believe it has to.”
The United States and China have a “mutual skepticism of each other,” the Pacific Commander acknowledged, but he characterized the relationship as “collaborative, generally.”
He said the dangers of direct military confrontation between the two powers is low, but warned against Chinese tendencies to perceive the United States as engaged in an effort to ‘contain’ the expansion of China’s influence. Instead, Locklear urged China to work with the United States to build new security and economic structures in the region.
Economic interdependence between the countries makes it impossible for the two countries to avoid working together, he told the seminar, co-sponsored by the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
He said that China has also benefited from the security environment that the United States has helped shape and maintain in the region.
Locklear reminded the audience of the central importance of the vast area under his command, which stretches from the Indian subcontinent across the vast Pacific Ocean. More than nine out of 10 of the largest ports in the world are in the Asia-Pacific region, and over 70 percent of global trade passes through its waters. The U.S. rebalance to Asia, a policy pursued by the Obama administration as early as year 2009, largely happened because of the economic and political importance of that area.
The mutual interest in economic prosperity depends, however, on a stable security environment. Washington has an interest in maintaining the structure of security that has ensured peace for the last few decades. Beijing seeks to change the status quo, to build a regional system that reflects its growth as a power.
Locklear called on China to work with the United States and other nations in the region, such as Japan and Australia, as well as the countries of Southeast Asia, to take the current “patchwork quilt” of bilateral and multilateral alliances and build a basis to maintain economic interdependence and security. He pointed to the U.S.-led effort to form a Trans-Pacific Partnership as a 12-nation economic structure, which could eventually include China.
“We want China to be a net security contributor,” he said, “And my sense is that both the United States and the nations on the periphery of China are willing to allow China to do that – but with circumstances.” He said conditions for the United States included open access to shared domains in sea, air, space and cyberspace.
The Pacific Commander cautioned against the danger, however, of unintended conflict, fueled by territorial disputes and Chinese assertiveness that worries its neighbors. Locklear stressed the need for more dialogue, including among the militaries in the region, an effort that the U.S. Pacific Command is currently carrying out.
“There’s a trust deficit in Asia among the nations, as it relates in particular to China,” he said.
Relations have been so icy that the top political leaders of Japan and China didn’t meet for nearly two years, only breaking the divide for a 20-minute meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit (APEC) in Beijing last month.
Refusing to engage at the highest level has made it difficult for countries to work on solutions to shared problems. The region now sees a confluence of old and new challenges that could threaten global stability if ill-managed, said Locklear, who has led the U.S. military command in the Pacific since 2012.
For decades, China and Japan have been at odds about sovereignty claims over islands in the East China Sea. In the past, during the time of Deng Xiaoping’s rule in China, the two countries agreed to, as Deng reportedly put it, ‘kick the issue into the tall grass’ for future generations to deal with it. These disputes have resurfaced in recent years, threatening to trigger armed conflict between the air and naval forces of the two countries.
Locklear said he believed that China and Japan would avoid inadvertent escalation, thanks to improved communications and tight command and control over their forces. But he also warned that at least seven nations have conflicting claims in the South China Sea, which could easily escalate into direct conflict.
These situations, paired with an upsurge in Chinese military spending and the growing belief that the United States is a declining power, raise doubts about China’s intentions in the region. China’s Asian neighbors increasingly question the intensions of the world’s most populous nation, and second largest economy.
“Is it a return to the old days where you had basic tributary states? Is that the model that China is looking for? Or is it a 21st century model?”
Locklear said China and other nations in the Asia-Pacific, as well as the United States, need to work harder to form shared views and consensus, particularly among those who “own the guns.”
Dialogue and interactions among the militaries are crucial, especially those who are called upon to make quick decisions during a possible flashpoint, for instance an accidental clash of boats or planes.
“Trust really does fall in many ways to military leaders to get it right and to lead, to some degree, the politicians and the diplomats,” he said. Locklear spoke of a tangible example of collaboration in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, also known as RIMPAC, hosted by USPACOM. Twenty-two countries participate in the world’s largest maritime warfare exercise in Hawaii, which this year included naval forces from China.
“Does it fix those friction points? No, it doesn’t.” But, Locklear concluded, “We hope that this kind of thing opens the door for future interaction.”
The audio file and transcript from the event can be accessed by clicking here.