When President Barack Obama came to power in January 2009, the United States was sincerely extending its good will towards China. Since the end of the Cold War era, it was the first time Washington embraced Beijing without an unpleasant beginning. The two countries did think that they could collaborate on a wide range of issues such as the financial tsunami, climate change, non-proliferation of Weapons of Massive Destruction (WMD), and the global war against terrorism. Among others, they truly believed that they could work together to do something on climate change for the rest of the world.
Sino-US relationship reached its peak when President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao met and held an international press conference, unveiling the US-China Joint Statement on November 11, 2009. Given China’s financial pressures on the US, it is understandable that the US President could not but make some concessions by showing his respect for China’s “core interests” in particular. In this US-China Joint Statement, Beijing successfully connected “respecting each other’s core interests” with “mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” At that time, China was only trying to associate its core interests with sovereignty and territorial integrity over Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.
Nevertheless, the US and China soon found it difficult to maintain their honeymoon for long as an alliance between India and China presented a formidable barrier at the climate change meetings in Copenhagen in December 2009. The failure of Copenhagen was followed by a series of unpleasant incidents between the two countries, including the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington, DC, US arms sales to Taiwan, and the RMB controversy. Washington believed that Beijing was only taking advantage of US goodwill on the issue of “core interests” without giving anything substantial back in return, whereas Beijing thought that Washington was only taking benefits from Beijing in terms of China’s huge procurement of US public debts without paying back any political interest.
While the Taiwan issue was still a controversial topic between the US and China, it was Beijing that further expanded the concept of core interests to incorporate the South China Sea and Yellow Sea as parts of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, thereby really irritating Washington. The US has long insisted that it has the right to have free and safe passage in the high seas, air and space.
Nonetheless, China is the most stubborn barrier to the open access of sea and air as the Chinese military has begun to push into other nations’ territorial waters, from Japan to Vietnam, to the extent of harassing naval vessels of other nations. Moreover, Chinese officials have begun calling the South China Sea a “core interest,” implying sovereignty over international waters. In the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) conference in Singapore in early June 2010, Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, demanded that the US respect China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea. Washington could put aside the anti-US remarks made by Luo Yuan or Zhu Chenghu, but it could not afford to ignore Ma Xiaotian’s views. Furthermore, when it was reported that the US might send the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier, to the Yellow Sea to join the US-South Korea joint military drills, China reacted strongly. “China has expressed grave concern to relevant parties over the issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on July 8. “We firmly oppose foreign military vessels and planes conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China’s coastal waters that undermine China’s security interests.” Washington could shrug off anti-US talk by some non-mainstream PLA generals like Luo Yuan or Zhu Chenghu, but it could not afford to ignore Ma Xiaotian and Qin Gang’s remarks.
On the issue of the South China Sea, both China and Taiwan claim the whole of the South China Sea, with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia also claiming parts of it. At the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) conference in July 2010, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, made it clear that the US has “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” She further claimed that Washington is supporting a “collaborative diplomatic process” by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes, opposing the use or threat of force by any claimant. In short, the US position on this issue is that the controversy over the South China Sea should be solved through diplomatic and peaceful means.
Yang Jiechi, Chinese Foreign Minister, was said to be “clearly exasperated” with Clinton’s remarks because he had advised her not to address the controversial issue at the ARF conference in Hanoi in advance. Therefore, when all the representatives were only allowed 10 minutes each to express their country’s position, he spent more than 40 minutes to criticize the US position and specified Beijing’s position on the South China Sea forcefully.
For the past decade, a phrase like “couldn’t be much better and couldn’t be much worse” has been used from time to time to depict Sino-US ties. In appearance, it sounds reasonable and does partially account for the fluctuation in Sino-US relationship. Nonetheless, it cannot provide a reasonable interpretation for the ups and downs in Sino-US relations, particularly the escalated tensions between them as a result of US-Korean joint drills in the East Sea. It is expected that the Sino-US relationship will come back on the right track in the foreseeable future. However, new or old contradictions will continue to derail their relationship as we have witnessed during the Obama administration.
Probably, a relatively precise phrase to describe the post-Cold War Sino-US relationship will be that the US and China will work together on some international issues when their common national interests are identical, and their relations will be tense when their respective national interests diverge. In short, their common or respective national interests will determine whether they choose to collaborate or compete.
When the Obama administration decided to embrace China in early 2009, it was the first time the two giants had started their honeymoon (January 2009) without an unpleasant beginning. They did think that they could collaborate on a wide range of international issues. Unfortunately, their honeymoon ended a little more than a year (January 2010) after President Obama’s inauguration. And then, they recovered their mutual trust and began their second honeymoon two months later (March 2010).
Suddenly, their second honeymoon broke down, too (June 2010). The Obama-Hu relationship suggests that a mutual accommodation after an unpleasant beginning is sometimes not a bad thing. At least, they know what issues deserve their collaboration and the feasibility of their collaborative programs after mutual accommodation. Only in this way, will they care more about their difficult-to-achieve collaboration.
Chen I-hsin is professor of Graduate Institute of Americas, Tamkang University, Taipei.