China’s rhetoric and intentions remain ambiguous. China is the worlds second largest country in relation to defense spending and economic size. China continues to put vast amounts of money into its national defense budget to increase the size and capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army. Although China argues that its military buildup is defensive in nature, indications suggest that its buildup is strategically placed to counter U.S. and allied capabilities. This can lead to a misunderstanding or understanding where China’s intentions are looked at as a threat to its neighbors. Economic interests for the world are at stake, because the South China Sea and the surrounding region is the largest economic area in terms of trade. China has little dialogue about its military intentions and usually surprises its sea and land neighbors with new policies and claims of both land and water areas that breeds distrust. China not disclosing its military intentions has stoked distrust in the United States, because its main military goals are to focus on Asia, make sure that its allies are protected, and keep the area peaceful for economic reasons. The United States fears that China may not have the same goals and opposes the United States goals.

China and the United States are in competition between foreign policy and strategic military objectives that may require sanctions or the use of force. Some of the disagreements on foreign policy include the countries of Iran, Syria, Libya, and Sudan where China has blocked United States-supported United Nations resolutions. China has traded with some of these states, when most of the world has placed sanctions against the countries due to human rights violations, the development of weapons of mass destruction, or both. The human rights issues continues to be a point of contention between the United States and China. The United States usually opposes human rights violations, while China turns a blind eye to the issue.

The relationship between China and many United States-allied countries in the Pacific Ocean have cooled due to area disputes. One dispute is between Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam against China, because these nations claim parts of the Spratly Island chain and China claims the entire area. China is also in a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands which both countries claim. Most of these countries have a military alliance with the United States and if a conflict breaks out between one of these countries and China, the United States will have to step in against China. China has been criticized for not following protocol and respecting other countries’ territorial waters and ships in international waters. Some examples of this include a Chinese submarine that entered Japanese waters on November 2004 and in 2009, Chinese naval ships harassed a United States naval vessel, which could have escalated into a confrontation.

China has recently issued a map of its territorial water claims in the Pacific and published a statement that mentions it has the right to police the waters. This has caused a major concern for Pacific nations that either view this area as international water or as part of their territory. China has territorial disputes with almost twenty nations, which is more than any other country in the world. 

China not showing its military intentions, having the opposite foreign policy goals as the United States, and having conflicting relations with its neighbors has caused major friction. Unless action is taken to deescalate these tensions, it may cause a direct conflict that may escalate from a foreign policy dispute to a direct military confrontation. Three things that can be done to alleviate the possibility of a military confrontation between China and the United States and its allies are:

1. Common Interest
China and the United States should focus on common interest. The United States is China’s largest trading partner and China is the United States’ second largest trading partner, so an emphasis should remain on strong economic ties between the countries. Relations should continue between business councils, student exchanges, cultural exchanges, and other organizations that are non-government actors to help support positive cultural and business relations between China and the United States. Military and foreign policy cooperation that both countries agree on should be a major focus of relations, which may include North Korea, patrolling the Indian Ocean against pirates, working on environmental reforms, and including China in the SALT II treaty.

2. Show Intentions
China should make more of an effort to let other nations around it and the United States know its intentions of how it will use its military at present and in the future. This can help diffuse possible situations that may occur and it may breed more cooperation versus rivalry. The United States should do the same.

3. Territorial Disputes
China has territorial disputes with almost twenty countries, more than any other country in the world. China should work to settle as many disputes as possible and as soon as possible peacefully. China should not antagonize the United States and other countries in South East Asia it has territorial disputes with, because a small situation can lead to the escalation of a military conflict.

Williamson is a graduate student in international relations at the University of Kent's (UK) Brussels campus in Belgium.