Last weekend, John Kerry made his first visit to Beijing as Secretary of State. As expected, the North Korea nuclear issue topped the agenda. Secretary Kerry expressed America’s grave concerns and deep worries over the situation in the Korean Peninsula, while China urged related parties to refrain from taking any act that may escalate the tension. Both committed to work together to deal with the Korean crisis, and both countries would have “further discussions to bear down very quickly with great specificity on exactly how we will accomplish this goal.”
Considering the still escalating crisis in the Korean Peninsula, it certainly is very important for both countries to address the Korean issue, but that is a short-term issue only. Secretary Kerry’s first visit should not have been overshadowed by the Korean nuclear crisis, since the long-term bilateral relationship is more important.
Secretary Kerry inherited a drifting relationship with China from his predecessor Hillary Clinton during President Obama’s first term. In the second half of President Obama’s first term, it seemed American policy towards China had shifted from accommodating China’s rise to hedging the uncertainty brought by China’s rise, with its “pivot to Asia” as the signature slogan. The American officials deny that “pivot to Asia” is directed at China or designed to restraint China’s rise. They argue that the “pivot to Asia” is mainly for economic and political purposes, but Chinese officials care a lot about the military implications of the “pivot to Asia”; including American policy toward China’s maritime disputes with neighboring countries, military deployment in the West Pacific, and the emerging Air-Sea Battle concept developed to counter anti-access/area-denial challenges, known as A2/AD. Officials from both countries do not talk publicly about the increasingly competitive flavor of bilateral relations, but there is no denial that strategic mistrust and suspicion has deepened rather than been reduced over the past few years.
The hedging strategy embodied in the “pivot to Asia” is contradictory and internally conflicting. As manifested in the past two years, the hedging strategy only decreased rather than increased mutual trust. Both sides have deep concerns over the other side’s long-term strategic intentions, specifically whether the United States will restrain China’s rise, or whether China will challenge American dominance in the West Pacific. However, neither side has been assured by the statements and rhetoric made with strategic intention. American high rank officials have indicated that many regional, global, economic, and security challenges can not be addressed successfully without cooperation between China and the U.S., however, the U.S. can’t just expect whole hearted cooperation from China while it maintains such an aggressive posture in the Asia-Pacific. Southeast Asian nations were also confused by American hedging strategy. They have some concerns over the implication of China’s rise, but they expect China and the U.S. to maintain a well balanced and strategically stable relationship. None of these countries want to choose sides between the largest developing country and the leading country of the developed world.
What is more important, the hedging strategy only makes the dispute management, or crisis management, more difficult. There exist many disputes between China and the U.S. over economic and security issues, including but not limited to America’s military posture in this region, China’s military modernization, and both countries’ policies in nuclear, space, cyber security, and missile defense. The disputes between the two countries, their respective policies toward countries in this region, especially those countries that either have maritime disputes with China or have troublesome relations with the U.S., might develop into major challenges for both countries. America’s long standing policy of calculated ambiguity in Asian territory disputes has served American interest well in the past, however, with the revival of the territory disputes in Asia, it will be increasingly challenging for the U.S. to balance deterrence to its adversaries with assurance to its allies. Such a policy not only deepens Chinas suspicion of America’s strategic intentions, but also leaves room for those countries to maneuver America’s limited commitment, and China-US disputes.
All in all, the U.S. high-profile “pivot to Asia” has poisoned Sino-US relations, and the foundation for positive and constructive interactions is shaking. The pessimistic view of bilateral relations in academic publications and mass media commentaries are on the rise, rather than in the decline.
Therefore, it is high time for John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, and President Obama’s security team to fix the problem. There is no denying that China and the U.S. will face many challenges in the future but, at the same time, we must also realize that there is a great opportunity to define future bilateral strategic stability. The basic conditions for a a strategically stable relationship are there: China and the U.S. are economically and politically interdependent, the common interests and challenges are increasing rather than deceasing; both countries share the same stakes in maintaining a peaceful and stable international environment; it is very unlikely that China and the U.S. will have an ideological confrontation similar to the U.S.-Soviets in the cold war era; and more than 90 intergovernmental dialogues help to manage the various differences. In addition, both countries have accumulated enough experiences in promoting cooperation and learned enough lessons in handling disputes. In his speech at the Asia Society, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon disagreed that “a rising power and an established power are somehow destined for conflict”, and he called for building a new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one. That is a positive gesture, and it is the time to both talk the talk, and walk the walk. In this sense, the close consultation on the Korean issue in Secretary Kerry’s first trip is important, but far from enough. To establish a strategically stable bilateral relationship, Secretary Kerry still has a long way to go, and his mission is not accomplished, yet.
Dr. Fan Jishe is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and also Deputy Director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies.