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Foreign Policy

Sense and Sensibility of John Kerry’s Visit to China

Feb 17 , 2014
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

On February 14-15, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Chinese leaders and high-level officials in Beijing. Compared with his previous trip to Beijing ten month ago, the environment of this visit was more complicated. It was widely believed that the aim of his visit was to address problems with China and regulate China’s behaviors.

Before his visit, the Western media hyped China threat and fueled the sentiment for increasing the pressure on Chinese government. The focuses of the critics were China’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and China’s “assertiveness” towards its neighbors, especially those involved in territorial disputes.

Some US officials also expressed opposition and concern about China’s ADIZ and territorial disputes. On February 4 at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, Director of the US National Intelligence James Clapper said that China’s aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in the seas of East Asia was causing great concern among countries in the region.

In this context, John Kerry was expected to urge China to take actions to ease the tension with neighboring countries and clarify its territorial claims. He did talk with the Chinese side about the issue of ADIZ during his visit. He has reiterated the US positions, which included two perspectives. The first was that the US viewed China’s establishment of the ADIZ as a unilateral action that would undermine regional stability. In this regard, the US opposed China’s East China Sea ADIZ and warned China not to take the option of setting up another ADIZ in South China Sea. The other perspective of Washington’s intention was that the US was seeking certain influence in China’s policy making. The US made it clear that it disapproved China’s announcement of the plan without any previous communication or consultation with other countries, of course, including the US. The US wanted China to adhere to the highest standards of notice, engagement, involvement, information sharing. By this way, the US would be able to interfere in or at least prepare for China’s decisions.

As for the territorial disputes, John Kerry emphasized that China should resolve the problems in a peaceful way and adhere to the international law, especially the law of the sea. The implication of this remark was that the US would not approve China’s deterrence against other claimants by showing off its strengthening muscles.

However, according to the information released by both China and the US, it seemed that Secretary Kerry failed in forcing China to make concessions.

It was not a surprising outcome. China’s new leadership has claimed that the country will persist in peaceful development, but will not at the cost of national interests of sovereignty, security and development. It is unlikely that China will easily make compromise on the issues concerning territorial disputes.

From the US perspective, John Kerry’s visit has much broader aims than pressuring on China. The key of the US plan was to settle down concrete designs for a new type of relationship with China.

China and the US have stuck to the agreements reached by President Xi and President Obama during their meetings at Sunnylands California last year. Up to now, neither of the two countries changed this goal. In order to carry out the new type of relationship, high-level communication was necessary. Recently, China-US relationship was faced with some problems. In this regard, John Kerry’s trip aimed at playing a positive role in improving the ties rather than arousing more trouble.

Specifically, John Kerry’s visit this time was constructive for easing regional tension. Both countries got a better understanding of each other’s bottom lines. The US has realized that China has a strong claim, a claim based on history and fact. China is reluctant to make unilateral concession since some of the related parties continue to make provocations. China is also alert of the multilateral trend of the disputes and the intervention of other countries. At the same time, China is aware that the US supports regional stability and is unlikely to approve China’s using of force to resolve disputes. China has also understood that the US attaches great importance to its security interests and its appeals for freedom of actions in Asia-Pacific. Accordingly, China will encounter strong opposition from the US side about setting up ADIZ in the South China Sea. The comprehension of the bottom lines will help the two sides avoid unnecessary misunderstanding and the risk of conflict in the region.

Secretary Kerry’s visit also revealed some problems for the two sides to deal with in the future. The US tried to utilize international law and international orders to regulate China’s behaviors. However, China believes that the international laws especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was adopted in 1980s, cannot change territorial sovereignty that was clear in history. At the same time, China is cautious about the potential of further internationalization of the South China Sea issue.

After Kerry’s visit, President Obama will not include China as one of the stops in his next Asian tour. However, China and the US will mostly likely keep in the right track to develop bilateral ties. The key is that both sides are willing to work towards a new type of relationship and avoid the interruption of a third party or individual problems to ruin the growing cooperative relationship.

Su Xiaohui is Deputy Director of the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the China Institute of International Studies.

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