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Foreign Policy

Stabilizing Relations in the Year of Leadership Transitions

Aug 17 , 2012

This year marks leadership transitions in both China and the United States.  As expected, the Chinese Communist Party will convene its 18th Party’s Congress and elect its new Secretary General. Also, the US is in the process of choosing between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

With this in mind, both Beijing and Washington have stressed the importance of stability in the bilateral relationship, particularly for 2012.  Though Mitt Romney has been critical of the Obama administration’s policy on China’s currency “manipulation”, the same as what Senator Obama alleged four years ago during his presidential campaign, President Obama has yet to defend his current position not identifying China as a manipulator. Though China and the US disagree over how to stabilize the situation in the South China Sea, they both agree it needs to be stabilized.  Earlier this year, the US made it clear it wouldn’t take sides in the case of China-Philippines dispute over Huangyan Island. Though Beijing still might not feel entirely satisfied with this policy, Manila would feel more discouraged as this could be interpreted as unwillingness by the US to commit itself to the defense of the island on behalf of the Philippines.

Though the US seems interested in maintaining regional stability and China-US relations over the broad chessboard, there have emerged a number of obvious controversies between China and the US regarding their policies in the South China Sea, Diaoyu Islands, Syria and Iran, among various other outstanding thorny issues.  Largely they diverge on the perceived respective intent and means, in terms of stability, for the role of either China or the US.  The recent visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and the upcoming visit by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to China, all aspire to stabilize their bilateral relations and those flashpoints especially in the Middle East, through securing China’s support.

South China Sea

Indeed through such visits and exchanges of views, China and the US will better understand each other and may possibly align more closely with each other’s positions. For instance, with the US persistently pushing for the South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC), Beijing seems to have signaled some shift in its unwillingness to make the CoC a priority. Lately, the Chinese government has indicated that it would consider the CoC, though with some reservation. In addition, China is reported to have cut its energy importation from Iran last month, which is helpful in the eyes of Washington to press Tehran to moderate its nuclear path.

However, on almost all specific counts, the US Secretary of State Clinton may have been frustrated – on South China Sea at least, it looks unlikely that the whole interest-disputes will be resolved anytime soon.  China wants to share rights in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of its South China Sea neighbors, while these neighbors have more or less occupied some islands or islets in the region, despite the fact that China has claimed all of them.  For all waters beyond China’s own EEZ, China may have some claims that the US would not appreciate.  Even though the aforementioned CoC would be agreed upon, these disputes would hardly go away.  China perceives America as driving these disputes as the latter’s “pivot” in Asia militarily has more deterred China.  The different regional order and associated stability, which both China and the US desire, doesn’t converge just because of Clinton’s visit.

Diaoyu Islands 

With regards to the Diaoyu Islands, the US continues to refer to them as the Senkakus, showing its admission of Japan’s executive control of them.  China considers this incorrect.  Beijing views the Diaoyu Islands a part of Taiwan Island, and hence a part of China since the Ming Dynasty if not earlier.  Though China ceded them to Japan in 1895 as a result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, all the islands were to revert to China after Japan’s defeat in 1945.  It was America that has created the dispute since in 1972 the US reverted administrative control over Diaoyu Islands back to Japan instead of China as obligated under treaty law.

Since then the US has maintained two positions.  First, despite allowing Japan to rule over the islands, this does not automatically confer sovereignty over the islands to the Japanese.  Actually the US cannot add or reduce Japan’s sovereignty over the islands, if there is any, simply because America occupied them from 1947-1972.  Second, the Japan-US Security Treaty (Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America) of 1960 didn’t apply to the islands, as the US did not specify that the islands belong to Japan.

Article Five of the Treaty stated that “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”  As the US doesn’t recognize Diaoyu Islands as Japanese territory, consequently America isn’t obliged to protect them.  From 2001, however, the US started to shift its position and Secretary Clinton has most clearly altered it for the past two years by declaring to defend the disputed islands for Japan.

Therefore, there is a major departure from previous US positions concerning the interpretation of the Japan-US Security Treaty, certainly for “stability” in favor of Japan and the US, which generates virtual instability of Sino-Japan and Sino-US relations.  Japan’s push for “purchasing” the islands, which greatly destabilizes China-Japan relations, must be viewed unfavorably by Beijing given Secretary Clinton’s will to protect Japan beyond the scope of Japan-US Security Treaty.  Obviously, Clinton’s visit won’t resolve China-US trust deficit.

Iran and North Korea 

China and the US profess to share the same interest in curbing irresponsible nuclear development in Iran and North Korea.  However, due to Tehran and Pyongyang’s strategic calculation and their respective strategic environment, each of them is still pushing its nuclear program – the IAEA has lately reported Iran’s doubling of nuclear enrichment effort and North Korea has claimed to have carried out two plutonium-based nuclear tests, and showed to Americans its headway in uranium enrichment.

The US might have though it impossible to reverse Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, but has employed financial sanctions to press Iran, at least before the presidential election this November.  In this regard, China’s cooperation in appreciably reducing its oil dependence on Iran shall help nuclear nonproliferation, the Washington-Beijing partnership, and China’s own long-term interests.  Though China and the US still differ in this regard, there is sign that they would improve relations over the Iranian nuclear issue.


In China’s history of exercising veto power at the UN Security Council, three out of its nine vetoes have taken place since 2011, along with Russia, to stop external efforts to impose regime change in Damascus.  China’s high-handed voting records have two considerations – to slow if not to stop the effect of external interference into Syria’s domestic conflict; to slow if not stop the domino effect of the “jasmine” revolutions from Tunisia, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, to Tehran and more distant places.  There has been a serious diplomatic fight between China and the US on this: pushing to remove Bashar al-Assad, or protecting Syria from foreign intervention?  The US has gone as far as to brand China as opposing the tide of history.

Given the rising power of the opposition party in Syria and the grievous domestic situation in the country, China has taken a more pro-active position by inviting Syrian opposition parties to Beijing, respecting its role in the present Syrian domestic political game.  This closely resembles China’s invitation to Libyan opposition figures in the summer of 2011 before Gadaffi was overthrown.  Unlike China’s own traditional stance of non-intervention, Beijing has ventured a new approach to dealing with potential new governments in areas it has substantial stakes.

Secretaries Clinton and Panneta’s visit to China won’t do much to resolve China-US strategic suspicions in issues like the South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands, and wouldn’t be able to repair bilateral policy disagreements over pressing Iran and Syria, for their respective perception of “stability”.  Nevertheless, this doesn’t narrow China-US interests in regional stability and stability in their bilateral relations.  As long as they can, they would still act to collaborate, either not to “side” with the Philippines, or not to admit Japan’s sovereignty over Diaoyu Islands, or to step into Libyan and Syrian domestic affairs as China has done.  Despite the tensions, the current China-US relationship is still somehow more “mature” than they have ever been in the past.

Shen Dingli is a Professor and Executive Dean of the Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.

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