The relationship between China and the US is akin to that of a pride of lions. There's an older, established alpha male who calls the shots. But there's also a younger lion who helps to protect and defend the group, while at the same time establishing his power and testing his elder. China's newly-acquired self-confidence is clear from its readiness to bare its claws in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea. The world's second economy is behaving less demurely than it once did.
While Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was meeting his US counterpart John Kerry on Tuesday, pictures surfaced which indicated that China had deployed fighter jets on Woody Island, just one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Last week, satellite pictures showed that China had stationed surface-to-air missiles with a range of 200 km on that same island. At the same time, US President Barack Obama was discussing how to ease the tensions over the South China Sea with several Southeast Asian leaders at an ASEAN summit in California.
The South China Sea lies between Brunei, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. It is traversed by a third of global shipping and thought to be rich in resources such as oil and gas. China lays claim to 90 percent of the territory, which is 3.5 million square meters in size, including to islands and reefs that lie 800 km away from the Chinese coast but only about 220 km from the Philippine coast.
Obama has called for the conflict to be resolved peacefully and according to international law. However, the US has also acted provocatively in recent months by flying B52 bomber planes over the region and having its ships patrol the disputed waters. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly stated that the matter should be resolved by regional powers and that Washington should not get involved.
US and China have joint interests
Despite the dispute about the South China Sea islands entering a new phase, China and the US have both shown that they can also cooperate. They are not just rivals; they also benefit from each other. Last year, their mutual trade volume amounted to $558.4 billion and China is now the Americans' biggest trade partner as well as its biggest creditor.
Investments between the two countries exceed $150 billion and the number of tourists between the two countries recently reached 5 million. The more inter-dependent the two become, the more they will have to talk. In the past 30 days alone, Wang Yi and John Kerry have met three times to do exactly that.