Today, more than ever, the term "uncertainty" characterizes Sino-U.S. relations. South Korea needs to pay vigilant attention to the power projections between the two most influential external stakeholders on the Korean Peninsula because history shows that the peninsula's destiny was often shaped by the whims of powerful neighbors. In Washington and Beijing, government officials often claim that there is no such thing as the "Thucydides Trap" in Sino-U.S. relations. That warrants scrutiny.
U.S.-China relations are commonly characterized as both cooperation and competition. This narrative has been seductively popular in the public sphere and has even become to be perceived as a "new normal" ― so normal that we even take comfort from it. Even if the two superpowers often rattle each other's nerves, at the end of the day, so goes the underlying logic, they will not likely go into a full-fledged war, because they know so well that they have so much to lose.
This is the usual optimistic view that their relationship will be more defined as cooperation rather than competition. Advocates of this view argue that the current U.S.-China relationship is fundamentally different from the adversarial relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Cold War is over. It is a new world. China is different, too. China does not look at the world as it did during the Cold War. Or, it should be, the common assumption goes.
In addition, even though the U.S. and China may exchange jabs, they are mutually dependent and will cooperate on international affairs, as the "G2." Besides, China and America have robust channels of communication, totaling nearly 300, which can troubleshoot mutual strategic mistrust.
Well, U.S. President Barack Obama's initial policy blueprint for China was based on this kind of optimism, too. He regarded China not as a force that threatens peace and stability, but a fledging big nation that will grow into a stable and constructive power that Washington can work with. This notion has been increasingly challenged since.
The reality is that the United States and China still do not have common definitions and parameters on some of the central components of human civilization today, including the concept of "democracy" and "freedom." With ideologies largely remaining foreign to each other, it is doubtful whether the two nations are able to establish common ground in other more strategic realms.
Although Obama has been largely refraining from publicly criticizing China, according to Robert Sutter ― who served three decades in the U.S. foreign policy circle, including the CIA ― American officials privately advise that there will be greater "friction and tension" in the period ahead between Washington and Beijing.
So is Jeffrey Bader, who was the director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the Obama administration. He shared a view with me, on the sidelines of a conference, that "uncertainty" is increasingly becoming a defining feature of Sino-U.S. relations.
Cultivating a personal friendship between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Obama, as a remedy, did not relieve bilateral tensions or resolve outstanding issues. Unlike media reports of a "historic" and "successful" meeting of the two leaders at the Sunnylands summit in 2013, interlocutors who were knowledgeable about the matter told me that the American side had a hard time making Xi Jinping relaxed and speaking freely, by going off the script.
In that meeting, Xi proposed an idea for a new Sino-U.S. relationship blueprint. If the American side agreed to abide by the new contract, the couple would not have to fight each other, and become bedfellows. This is the so-called "new type of major power relations" (xinxing daguo guanxi). Even though some earlier news reports portrayed it as if the U.S. side accepted it, Chinese and American insiders told me that Washington rejected the Chinese proposal. The U.S. suspects the idea is none other than a modern-day Chinese version of the "Monroe doctrine," aimed at driving the U.S. out of Asia.
Policy suggestions often point out the importance of cooperation and consultation. But we have to be cognizant that the two superpowers may have fundamentally different world views that may be genuinely hard to reconcile. Zhang Weiying, former head of the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, said: "The more Americans and Chinese meet each other, the more they will discover how different they are." This offers some sober realism.
Sino-American relations have mostly deteriorated since the Sunnylands summit between Xi and Obama, with ongoing disputes over cybersecurity, China's territorial rows with its neighbors and their different strategies over how to deal with North Korea.
Even though the U.S. and China will not likely enter into war or engage in major arms clashes in the immediate future, it does not automatically constitute "peace" for the Korean Peninsula either. The moves and interactions the two giants make will generate significant strategic disarray and confusion for South Korea, which will be constantly on high alert to guess their intentions. South Korea should buckle up for an uncertain new world order ahead. It will be a bumpy ride.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Email him at email@example.com.