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Foreign Policy

Challenges for China Visit by U.S. Defense Secretary

Sep 09 , 2016
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

In the achievement list of the Strategic Dialogue under the framework of the 8th Strategic and Economic Dialogue between China and the United States released on June 8, there was an important but discreet message, saying that the Chinese side welcomes US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to visit China in 2016 and that Defense Secretary Carter is looking forward to the visit. The expression was delicate, and it seemed that neither side had made any firm commitment with regard to the visit. But it is obvious that the mention of the visit to China by Defense Secretary Carter was intended by both sides to encourage the visit.

However, three months later, in the achievement list released by the Chinese side on Sept 4, 2016 after the meeting in Hangzhou, China, between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Obama, no mention was made of such a visit. The difficulties surrounding a Carter visit to China are so huge that the two sides have for now agreed to give up on the visit, at least for the time being.

First, strategic trust between the two countries, especially between the two armed forces, is shrinking instead of increasing as the Obama administration continues to implement its so-called strategy of rebalance in Asia. Generally speaking, under such a situation, the Defense Secretary’s visit to China is all the more necessary. It could help increase mutual understanding, dispel some unnecessary misjudgments, and build more political trust between the two countries, and between the two armed forces. Then why give up the opportunity? For the sake of improving Sino-U.S. relations, the two sides should have grasped the opportunity rather than beating a retreat in the face of difficulties.

Second, the US strategy of rebalance in Asia with the remarkable increase of deployment of US military forces in Asia has achieved nothing positive. In China, many scholars and analysts have bluntly pointed out that the strategy has already failed, as it could become a mission that would never be finished. Meanwhile, in the US increasingly critical voices have been heard. It has wasted a lot of American taxpayers’ money when the federal government budget is tight, and what is more serious, it has, in some way, stimulated China’s assertive approach in the South China Sea and increased input for the sustained rise of China’s military strength. The US Secretary of Defense is the chief executor of the military part of the rebalance strategy. How to assess his merits and mistakes would be very difficult or controversial. If he makes the visit, heated debate on the issue would be hardly avoidable, and it might not be in favor of the Democrats at the critical moment of this election year.

Third, as a new US president will assume office in four and half months, the two sides might find it difficult to narrow their major differences, and achieve anything meaningful for future Sino-US relations before that. What is more unfavorable for the US at this moment is the rapid change in the situation in Asia, especially the Philippines’ new president’s attitude towards the US Since his assuming office, he has publicly criticized the US ambassador to the Philippines — even the secretary of state and the president. As a result, the planned meeting between the U. and Philippine presidents in early September has been cancelled. The US’ blunt interference in Philippines internal affairs has caused a deterioration of the U.S.-Philippines relationship. Under such circumstances, if the U.S. defense secretary visits China,the US would be seen as being in a very unfavorable position when talking about the issue of the South China Sea with the Chinese.

Most probably, Carter will be one of the very few US defense secretaries who did not visit China during his tenure of office since US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. It is truly regrettable for both China and the US.

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