On May 16 and 17, US Secretary of State John Kerry paid his fifth visit to China. As the highest-level American official who visited China this year, with a hot China policy debate going on in the U.S., and the Obama administration strongly criticizing China’s reclamation in South China Sea, his visit has been regarded as a trip aimed at denouncing Beijing. However, judging from the result, Kerry’s visit is better characterized as a trip of in-depth communication.
Early this year, American strategic circles started another round of China policy debate. From the so-called “cracking up” of the Chinese Communist Party to the familiar rhetoric of “the China threat”, it made some American China watchers believe the consensus underlying the U.S. China policy is collapsing. One article in the Huffington Post concluded that, for quite a long period of time, U.S. strategists observed that even if China is turning increasingly assertive, it could not fundamentally challenge the US dominance in Asia. However, from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to China’s reclamation in South China Sea, the US was either misjudging or watching idly. It showed that China’s challenge is real, and the Obama administration needs to adjust its Asian policy.
Some well-known American China hands also sounded worried about the current development of the US-China relations. As the Dean of China studies of the Johns Hopkins University David Lampton observed, the bilateral relationship is at a tipping point, “the foundation of Sino-US relations has not collapsed, but an important part of US policy elite increasingly tend to see China as a threat to the global dominance of the United States”.
Professor Lampton’s worry was not without reason, and it reflects the American strategists’ confusion about China’s future development. In the political arena, the liberalization of the economy has not led to democratization as some expected, and their wishful thinking about changing China has finally left them disillusioned. Economically, China’s rise has changed the world at a pace that nobody predicted. In China, foreign investment is still welcome but no longer treated in such a favorable way, and foreign companies do not enjoy some of the privileges of doing business as before. Meanwhile, China’s overseas investment is growing fast. In external relations, with interaction and competition with the U.S. increased at the global level, many analysts say China is undermining the US global hegemony everywhere in the world.
What’s more, as the U.S. is entering the 2016 presidential campaign season, the domestic political environment is becoming more and more unfavorable for President Obama. The Republicans are not satisfied with this administration’s foreign policy, from negotiations with Iran, to normalization of relations with Cuba, to dealing with ISIS. When the media is making headlines about China’s construction of a so-called “Great Sand Wall” in the South China Sea, both congressmen and presidential candidates waste no time pressuring the executive branch to be tough on China. In fact, newly inaugurated Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reacted quite vigorously. On May 12, officials from the Department of Defense told the Wall Street Journal that they are considering using aircraft and Navy ships to directly contest Chinese territorial claims to a chain of rapidly expanding artificial islands. With accumulation of distrust and verbal confrontation, more and more people believe that China and the U.S. are heading towards a showdown, especially in the South China Sea.
Therefore, Secretary Kerry’s visit to Beijing has been of great importance at this critical moment. First, it shows that both countries would like to manage differences before crises occur. Chinese leaders tried to reassure the U.S. side they are still committed to building a new major power relationship. President Xi Jinping restated that the broad Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both China and the United States. Regarding doubts about whether China will continue with its reform and opening-up policy, Primer Li Keqiang said China will stick to that path: “Our gate to the outside world will be more and more open”. As for the construction work in the South China Sea, the Chinese side made no compromise, and even urged the U.S. to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation.
Second, this visit made timely preparation for the coming bilateral and multilateral events that could shape the following two year’s Sino-US relations. These events include the seventh round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and the sixth round of the High-Level People-to-People Consultation, President Xi Jinping’s first State visit to the U.S. in September, and the UN Climate Conference in Paris in December. The coming Xi-Obama meeting is especially important as both countries would like to continue the momentum generated by the previous two one-to-one meetings between the two presidents, and explore the potential of cooperation of this most consequential relationship in the world. Such high-level dialogue would not only build personal trust, but also stabilize the bilateral relations at a strategic level. Cooperation in areas like climate change and combating pandemic diseases like Ebola are creating new dimensions for the new type of major power relations.
Third, Secretary Kerry’s visit is a success as it deepened the understanding between two countries at this critical time, but it reminds both countries consensus is easy to reach but hard to actualize. The disputes between two countries highlighted the U.S. misinterpretation of China’s plans for future development. The U.S. side should neither overestimate its influence upon China’s future, nor underestimate China’s ability to explore its own way of development with Chinese characteristics. Especially on issues about territorial sovereignty, the U.S. should resist the temptation to test China’s redline, as the redline cannot be touched. The development of Sino-US relations should never be hijacked by the regional countries, which would like to benefit from US-China confrontations. Neither should the two countries give up construction of the major power relationship because of temporary disputes and differences.