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Foreign Policy

China-US Relationship in 2015

Jan 13 , 2016
  • Wu Jianmin

    Former President, China Foreign Affairs University

As we review the China-US relationship in 2015, we see a year full of challenges for both sides. However, thanks to their joint efforts, our two countries managed to overcome difficulties and obstacles of various kinds and succeeded in advancing this relationship further.

What can we learn from 2015 for China-US relationship?

1. Dialogue is the best way to address our differences.

President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to US from Sept 22 to 25. It was his first state visit to US since he assumed office. Prior to his visit, I made two trips to the US where I met a lot of American friends and discussed China-US relations with them. They all sounded depressed and were genuinely worried about the prospect. They cited divergences on numerous questions between the two countries, such as cyber security, South China Sea, human rights, etc. American media played up these divergences. They presented cyber security as the most contentious issue and asserted that the US was a major victim of hacker attacks “originating from China”. The Chinese side kept denying it. The atmosphere surrounding China-US relationship was worsening. Rumors had it that the US government was considering sanctions on China for hacker attacks. People feared Xi Jinping’s state visit to US may end up in failure.

From Sept 9 to 12, Meng Jianzhu, State Councilor and a member of the CPC Central Committee’s Political Bureau, paid a surprise visit to the US as President Xi’ s special envoy. Meng met Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. They engaged in intensive talks on the issue of cyber security. After three days of candid and pragmatic exchanges, the two sides reached a consensus on the issue, which was incorporated in the fact sheet at the end of President Xi’s state visit to the US. It says:

“China and the United States agree that timely responses should be provided to requests for information and assistance concerning malicious cyber activities. Both sides are committed to making common efforts to further identify and promote appropriate norms of state behavior in cyberspace within the international community. The two sides also agree to create a senior experts’ group for further discussions on this topic. China and the United States agree to establish a high-level joint dialogue mechanism on fighting cyber crimes and related issues.” As part of this mechanism, both sides agreed to establish a hotline for responding to such requests. It was also decided that the first meeting of this dialogue would be held by the end of 2015, and will occur twice per year thereafter.

State Councilor Meng Jianzhu’s visit to the US is viewed as a smart and timely move.

Cyber security is a highly controversial and sensitive issue. Yet it just took a few days for China and the US to reach the consensus. Both sides were satisfied. This is an eloquent proof that dialogue is the best way to address differences.

2. China-US cooperation made a major difference in COP21.

On Dec 13th, President Barack Obama made a televised speech about the success of UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris (COP21). He pointed out that “thanks to US-China cooperation”, the conference achieved a major agreement. The same day President Xi Jinping and President Obama had a telephone conversation to congratulate each other for this important achievement.

This is the first time that China and the US cooperated closely to make the UN climate change conference successful. That success is the most important good news in 2015.

Climate change poses a formidable challenge to mankind in the 21st century. No country, no matter how powerful it is, can meet this challenge alone. Humanity has no alternative but to unite to meet this challenge.

In December 2009, the United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen failed to achieve an agreement, to the total disappointment of the international community. One of the reasons for the failure was China-US disagreement on a number of issues. After Copenhagen, China and the US engaged in frequent exchanges of views on climate change and made some progress. Especially in November 2014, when President Obama paid a state visit to China, the two leaders issued a joint statement on climate change. It was well received by the international community. In December 2014, UN climate-change talks were held at the ministerial level in Peru. After many days of negotiations, the parties concerned were still unable to reach an agreement. Finally, they agreed to borrow the wording of the American and Chinese Presidents’ Joint Statement on Climate Change to break the deadlock.

In September 2015, President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to the US. The two presidents issued a second joint statement on climate change, which paved the way to the successful conclusion of COP21.

On Dec. 11, at the final stage of the climate conference, President Xi and President Obama had a telephone conversation. Both sides pledged to cooperate closely to assure success.

Sino-American successful cooperation on climate change is a milestone not only in China-US relations but also in international relations.

3. “South China Sea Model”

The differences between China and the US on South China Sea are getting more acute. The US has stated that it does not take side on the issue of ownership on isles and reefs in South China Sea. But the freedom of navigation and over-flight in the area should be guaranteed. On the Chinese side, it does not see any problem with regard to the freedom of navigation and over-flight in South China Sea. China cares more than any other country about the freedom of navigation and over-flight in South China Sea. In 2014, China’s foreign trade volume amounted to 4.3 trillion US dollars and 85% of the goods passed through the sea-lanes in South China Sea.

On Oct 27, 2015, the American missile destroyer Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef and Mischief Reef. The Chinese side asked for dialogue with the US side on this subject by referring to the US-China Memorandum of Understanding on the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, signed in November 2014.

On Oct 29, Admiral Wu Shengli, Commander of the Chinese Navy, had a video conference with American Navy’s Chief of Operations Admiral John Richardson. Admiral Wu Shengli expressed serious concern about American warships’ action, warned against the threat to collaboration of the two navies in this part of the world, and stressed that China and the US should play a positive role in preserving peace and stability in South China Sea.

On Nov 16th, Admiral Swift, Commander of the US Navy Pacific Fleet, visited China and held talks with Admiral Wu. The American side expressed the wish that the South China Sea issue would not affect US-China overall cooperation.

Some American scholars described these exchanges between China and the US on South China Sea as the “South China Sea Model”. This model has enabled the two sides to engage in dialogue and manage their differences.

China and the US, one a rising power and the other an established superpower, are bound to have differences on security issues. What matters is that the two sides have a mechanism at their disposal to deal with differences. “South China Sea Model” provides such mechanism.

Looking down the road, we are aware that 2016 is likely to be a complicated year for the China-US relationship.  The American presidential election campaign is unfolding, which is often a big show. The candidates can say anything they deem useful for their campaign. In addition to that, Taiwan will have elections in January. The Obama Administration has decided to sell weapons worth of $1.83 billion to Taiwan. All these factors may make the China-US relationship complicated in the coming year. I hope that the two sides, drawing on the positive experience of 2015, will do their best to navigate China-US relationship smoothly through the rough water. This relationship is so important for international peace and security in the 21st century that we cannot afford to let it drift.

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