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Foreign Policy

Furthering Constructive U.S.-China Relations?

Oct 11 , 2013

Readers of China-US Focus celebrate developments that appear “win-win,” boding for better U.S.-China relations, and worry about negative developments and freezing of the status quo.

From this perspective what to make of this week’s APEC and ASEAN meetings in Bali and Brunei, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and the October 3 “2+2” U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee meeting in Tokyo. 

Have all these meetings and initiatives moved the U.S.-China relationship forward on a constructive and mutually beneficial path?  Are they “win-win” for China and the U.S. and for the U.S.-China relationship?

Much is being made of President Obama’s absence from the APEC and ASEAN meetings, suggesting a setback in U.S-China relations.  I would argue the opposite.  It is a plus. 

According to Reuters, President Obama planned to raise the issue of disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea at the ASEAN meeting, thereby further inserting the United States and, potentially, U.S. military power, in these disputes.  Acting for Obama, Secretary of State Kerry will likely still raise the issue, but certainly to much less effect.

For U.S-China relations, insinuating the United States into the disputes in the South China Sea is a policy mistake with potentially dangerous consequences, unjustifiable by U.S. interests.  In this respect we may consider the very interesting speech by Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, USN; Commander, Pacific Command, entitled “A Shared Future for the U.S. China Military Relationship” at
the May 21, 2013 meeting of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) (full video of the speech at  Asked about the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Admiral Locklear remarked that drawing lines between the many disputants to the claimed islands produces a “noodle soup” picture of intractability.  Intimating that involvement would be a fool’s errand, he stated the official U.S. policy not to “take sides,” but to insist that disputes be settled peacefully.

This position inevitably encourages recklessness in such countries as the Philippines that would seek to engage U.S. power on their side, possibly even to the extent of provoking armed conflict.  Much more rational and potentially productive is China’s position, voiced recently by Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, that disputes should be resolved through peaceful negotiations between the disputing parties.  Reuters quotes Liu on October 8 saying: “Interference from countries outside the region will only complicate problems, and is unhelpful to enhancing common understanding and mutual trust between the countries in the region.”

Here it is appropriate to emphasize a fundamental point that is often ignored or forgotten (or even denied) in thinking about U.S.-China relations and U.S.-Asia relations:  the United States is not an Asian country.  

At the APEC meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that “the United States is a Pacific nation.”   This is a construct previously uttered by President Obama which is self-evident and constructive if not taken too far.  It has been taken too far, however, and becoming an unsupportable fallacy in explaining the “pivot to Asia” strategy.  That “Pacific” cannot and should not be understood to be “Asia” seems a subtle point, but it is a critical one.  Likewise that “Pacific” should not subsume the “South China Sea.”  The disputes between Asian countries can and should be resolved by the Asian countries themselves.  Interference by the Pacific power United States is counter-productive and could lead to armed conflict, which would be disastrous for all parties.

A push for year-end TPP agreement on trade, investment, and intellectual property among 12 countries—but excluding China–was high on Secretary of State Kerry’s agenda while at the APEC meeting, which concluded October 8.  Seemingly the dutiful “team player,” Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo voiced equal enthusiasm toward the TPP despite considerable opposition to this initiative in Japan.

Will TPP be a positive, negative, or neutral factor in U.S.-China relations?  Much media commentary—not least in China—focused on the notion of exclusionary “rival trade pacts,” suggesting a U.S. anti-China motivation in promoting TPP, and noting that China is promoting regional free trade agreements (FTAs), especially a China-South Korea-Japan FTA and an ASEAN + 3 (and/or 6) FTA. 

What seems clear is that the United States is promoting TPP for its own interests, without consideration of the U.S.-China relationship, and the same no doubt applies to China.  In general, freer trade and investment is always a good thing.  The verdict on TPP for the relationship would be neutral.

What cannot be said of neutral impact but must be recognized as highly negative, was the October 3 “2+2” U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee meeting between U.S. secretaries of state and defense John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, and Japanese foreign and defense ministers Kishida Fumio and Onodera Itsunori.

The summary report of the meeting in the October 3 New York Times begins, “the U.S. and Japan agreed on Thursday to broaden their security alliance, expanding Japan’s role while trying to show American determination to remain a dominant presence in the region.”  Following are details of new U.S. positioning of surveillance drones in Japan and further pressure on Tokyo over relocating the Futenma air base in Okinawa.

At the meeting a yearend 2014 deadline was set for revising the “Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation” to expand interoperability and joint operations.

At the NCUSCR meeting mentioned above, a questioner asked Admiral Locklear whether the comforting rhetoric about “strengthening alliances” and “enhancing security” were not just euphemisms for an accelerating military arms race, being stoked in large part by U.S. actions.  Locklear, to his credit, did not deny the implication, replying that Asia is already the world’s most militarized region. 

This baleful reality, rather than competing trade pacts, is clearly the greatest threat and obstacle to constructive and friendly U.S.-China relations now and in the future.  The “pivot” should be reversed.

Stephen M. Harner has been a U.S. diplomat, banker, and consultant in China and Japan since 1976.  He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).

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