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Rising China to test US on global security, Henry Paulson says

A rising and assertive China will definitely challenge the United States in global security, but the two powers should work together on regional problems such as the North Korean nuclear crisis and South China Sea disputes.

That was the assessment of former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong ­on Monday.

Paulson said China and the US would need to confront more regional security issues, but both countries should realise the importance of compromise to minimise conflict and avoid debilitating competition.

“There is going to be greater security competition in Asia. China has a more assertive, proactive foreign policy as its interests are growing around the world,” he said, adding that the toughest and most urgent issue was the growing nuclear threat from North Korea.

“The challenge is we are going to continuously hear voices in the US saying that China is an enabler of North Korea. But there is also an opportunity because this is a great threat … and it’s close to China right here in your neighbourhood.

“There is an opportunity for the two sides – the US and China – to work together to get tangible things done.”

But China has insisted that it is Washington, and not Beijing, that Pyongyang wants to talk to.

In a roundtable discussion with Hong Kong-based journalists, Paulson said ties between China and the US had long been affected by US-Russian and European-Russian relations, with China taking advantage of strains in those relationships.

“I believe some of the tensions the US has had with Russia, and that the Europeans have had with Russia … China is taking advantage of some of those dealings. I think [the Chinese] have been very smart in dealing with that,” he said.

“I think the Chinese are wise. After all, they know the US is in a very different league than Russia. The US is the major power in the world and the US-China relationship … is very important to global stability, to sustain global economic growth.”

Multimedia special: 70 years of construction, conflict and combat on the South China Sea

In a public conversation with Hong Kong economist Professor Lawrence Lau, academics and students at Chinese University – the publisher of the Chinese edition of the former treasury secretary’s book Dealing with China – Paulson said the US should not take sides on the validity of claims over the South China Sea because the issues were complex.

“When you look at territorial disputes, there are good arguments on any sides. I think it’s important that we don’t take sides on legitimacy,” he said.

“So the position that the US takes, and I very much agree with, is that it should not be solved through force, or coercion or threats of force because what that does, the worst case is it spills into real conflicts, and that’s unthinkable,” he said.