When Xi Jinping tipped up at the White House recently Barack Obama made a proposal. The president said they both had an interest in setting up a serious dialogue between the US and Chinese armed forces. Mr Xi, who expects to be China’s president by this time next year, did not take long to think about the idea. His response was blunt: No.

Mr Xi’s trip to the US was publicly uneventful. The heir presumptive to Hu Jintao was careful to say nothing remarkable. His hosts, particularly vice-president Joe Biden, used the occasion to make some acerbic remarks about China’s approach to trade, intellectual property rights and such like. This is a US election year. All in all, though, there was no sign either of a meeting of minds or of a serious rupture.

The impression taken by US officials from the encounters was that once he is China’s president Mr Xi is likely to be tougher, more nationalist and closer to the military than Hu Jintao. This means that managing the most important relationship of the 21st century is unlikely to get any easier.

A year or so ago, according to one US account, China’s military hawks came close to overturning the cautious approach of Beijing’s foreign policy establishment. They were held in check by Mr Hu and Dai Bingguo, the state councillor in charge of foreign affairs. But Deng Xiaoping’s famous admonition that a rising China should bide its time is fast running out of, well, time.

The assumption in Washington is that Mr Xi will have more authority than has Mr Hu within the People’s Liberation Army. This is not to say, however, that he will use it to restrain those who want a much more assertive projection of China’s national interests. Either way, Mr Xi will not be immune from the growing pressures for China to be tougher as hawks argue that the US is heading for inexorable decline.

The seas around China promise to be an area of maximum geopolitical tension during the coming decades. The waters and islands of the resource-rich South and the East China seas are disputed between China and its neighbours. China seeks maritime suzerainty, while the US insists on the right of its navy to safeguard freedom of navigation in some of the world’s busiest waterways. Taiwan is ever a potential flashpoint. This is a part of the world, in other words, where the rising power really rubs up directly against the established superpower.

It seems a pretty fair bet that neither side wants to engineer a direct confrontation. Armchair generals will tell you that China would lose in a straight fight. On the other hand, it is quite hard to say what would represent a victory for the US. The risk – and it is a real one – is of miscalculation born of deep mistrust: of a small incident escalating into a larger conflict.

Hence Mr Obama’s suggestion to Mr Xi. The Americans look back to the cold war. After some early near misses, Berlin and Cuba among them, Washington and Moscow established a panoply of institutions, mechanisms and tripwires to avoid accidental Armageddon. At the top was the famous hotline between the White House and the Kremlin, but the systems and procedures went all the way down. One of the critical elements was military-to-military communication: generals who got to know each other were less likely to misinterpret each other. They might decide it was worth picking up the phone before firing off a rocket.

Given the proximity of US and Chinese forces in the South China Sea you can see why it would be sensible to replicate such arrangements. There have been incidents and accidents during the past few years. As China builds up its navy and develops sophisticated “access denial” capabilities to push back the US from its shorelines, there will probably be more.

In the circumstances Mr Xi’s rebuff to Mr Obama is at once explicable and dangerous. As the present number one, the US likes to show off its military might. The message it wants to send is: “Don’t mess with us.” As a challenger, China sees advantage in ambiguity – in keeping Washington guessing about what it might be up against. Seen from Beijing, military to military co-operation could well be a ploy to underwrite a status quo that it does not accept.

Yet Beijing also has something to lose from miscalculation. Washington has its own hawks. So far, Mr Obama’s pivot to Asia has been all about careful diplomacy – about refurbishing old Pacific alliances and building new ones. It offers engagement with a collaborative China alongside the hedge against a belligerent Beijing. The aim is to constrain rather than contain China.

There is a gulf, however, between sophisticated diplomatic strategies and much of the public discourse in the US. The “threat” from China offers the US defence establishment a powerful riposte to deficit-driven calls for cuts in military spending. As China seeks access denial technologies, the Pentagon can demand new weapons to overcome them. The US navy, I once heard a senior US official say, has no better friend than its Chinese counterpart.

As for the politics, Mitt Romney’s bid for the Republican nomination assumes that if he wins the White House he can simply tell the Chinese what to do. Or else. Mr Romney has yet to explain what the “else” would amount to, but such detail does not seem to bother US hawks.

There is a real clash of interests between the US and China. Washington is determined to exercise its maritime rights and to underwrite the confidence of Asian allies. China wants to control the seas around its shores. It is hard to see how this can be resolved. What is certain is that it has to be managed. Mr Xi’s “No” will make it that much harder.


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