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Foreign Policy

Risks Manageable for China-U.S. Relations

Jun 02 , 2015
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

On May 16 and 17, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paid his fifth visit to China, becoming the highest-level U.S. official to visit China so far this year. According to the information released by the U.S. Department of State, the main purpose of this trip was to advance U.S. priorities ahead of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue this summer and the planned visit to the United States of President Xi Jinping this fall. However, U.S. officials revealed that Kerry’s visit would put pressure on China’s behavior, especially on the issue of South China Sea. For example, U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said in prepared testimony for a U.S. Senate hearing on May 13 that the United States was committed to maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. During Kerry’s visit to Beijing this weekend, the United States would clearly demonstrate the determination to “push for respect for the rules and push back on unilateral actions to change the status quo”.

Moreover, both U.S. politics and academia are now filled with a tough argument on China, which might plunge Sino-US relations into a crisis. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal report, citing anonymous U.S. military officials, said the Pentagon was considering sending Navy surveillance aircraft as well as ships within 12 nautical miles to reefs and islands claimed by China in the South China Sea, taking practical actions to demonstrate the U.S. will and ability to protect its advocated “freedom of navigation”. In addition, the U.S. think tanks have also published reports on U.S. China policy. The Council on Foreign Relations in early March published one such report entitled “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China”, which recommended that the United States needs to restore a hard-line China policy, noting that“Washington needs a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy.”

There are also some people suggesting the emergence of two confrontation groups in the region. Since the year of 2014, the U.S.-Japan alliance has strengthened in unprecedented ways. Not long ago, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the United States, winning a high-profile reception. The two sides revised The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, which promoted Japan to play a more active security role on a global scale. It also advanced the US-Japan alliance up to a new stage, that is, the United States continues to provide security guarantee for Japan, and Japan also provides more support to U.S. security. Meanwhile, from May 8-10, President Xi Jinping attended the “Victory Day Parade” in Moscow to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory of the world’s anti-fascist war and paid his fourth visit to Russia since taking office. The two parties issued a joint statement to deepen the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, which was the third one since the establishment of China’s new administration two years ago. In the joint statement, the two countries have emphasized mutually firm support and assistance on issues concerning core interests such as the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security. It gives the outside world an impression that China and Russia increasingly move toward alliance, or have formed a “quasi-alliance” relationship.

In reality, current China-U.S. relations are hardly as bad as it might seem on the surface. Kerry’s visit reflects that Sino-US relationship is still on the right track, and the differences between the countries are manageable. Kerry’s visit to China shows that both sides attach great importance to the relationship. Despite the contradictions and differences, the will of the top leaders of both countries to develop bilateral relations is strong and consistent. From Sunnylands in 2013 to Zhongnanhai in 2014, the two heads of state have formed a high degree of consensus on this point. Kerry’s visit also indicates that high-level Sino-US communication channels are open and effective. At present, the two countries have established more than 90 kinds of communication mechanisms, including the important Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange. These channels provide the foundation for managing disagreements and risks. In November 2014, the two sides established two mutual-trust mechanisms, namely, “Notification of Major Military Activities [and] Confidence Building Measures Mechanism” and “Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters”. Such mechanisms and rules are extremely helpful and beneficial for both sides to reduce the chance of conflicts or confrontations.

Nonetheless, the recent trends in Washington are still worrisome. Since there are structural contradictions between the two countries, the development of bilateral relations will not be smooth. Meanwhile, in the Asia-Pacific region, the Sino-US relation is getting complicated by third-party interference factors. Under such circumstances, the two countries should focus on the following efforts to keep the relations stable and going forward: (1) Strengthen strategic communication and coordination, and promote comprehensive, objective, inclusive understanding of each other’s strategic intentions. China should understand the US strong desire to ensure its global dominance and let the US know that China has no intention to replace its global leadership. And the United States should understand and respect China’s will to play its deserved role on international affairs as a big rising power. (2) Adjust the attitudes and behavior patterns, strengthen and expand the basis of common interests. The U.S. should abandon the outdated logic of “realism”, which believes in “strong powers bound to seek hegemony” and zero-sum Cold War mentality. Meanwhile, China needs to cultivate a mature and steady great-power mentality, and to learn to better communicate to win understanding and recognition of its international strategy from the outside world. (3) Set up the priorities for cooperation, foster and enhance mutual trust in the process. We need to advance practical cooperation in more specific fields for the benefit of both. In the process of promoting the Sino-U.S. relations, we also need patience and confidence.

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