The recent slight improvement of Sino-U.S. relationship has raised hope for a possible upward turn since its deterioration from early this year. Yet a more careful study of respective policies and related developments will reveal that the problems are still grave, although both sides want to get out of the trap they’re in and improve their relationship.
This bilateral relationship reached its nadir last month when China postponed the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (DSD) due to U.S.’ increasing military activities near the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, as well as sanctions against high-level Chinese military officials over arms deals with Russia. U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis’ visit to Beijing the same month was also “suspended”. Yet on October 18, a meeting took place between China’s minister of national defense, Wei Fenghe, and Mattis at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which was described as “the best recent news”. On November 1, after the two leaders’ call with one another, President Trump tweeted that he “had a very good conversation with President Xi”, seemingly hinting at the prospect of progress on trade. On November 9, the DSD was finally held in Washington and both sides agreed that conversations were “candid”, though China’s description was a bit different from U.S., with more adjectives such as “constructive” and “fruitful”, while the latter only commented it as “in-depth”.
The respective statements show both the consensus and divide between the two on foreign policy and security issues. The U.S. side seeks to pursue “a constructive, results-oriented U.S.-China relationship based on fairness and reciprocity”, which is actually an euphemism of Vice President Mike Pence’s more recent statement at the APEC summit that “the U.S. will not change course until China changes its ways,” meaning that the U.S. will judge whether China is helpful and cooperative based on China’s deeds. If China complies on trade and South China Sea issues, as well as on the One Belt, One Road initiative, it will then be labeled as “constructive”. If not, the U.S. would “double” its tariffs on China’s goods as punishment.
While China insists on a relationship with no confrontation, mutual respect, and mutual benefit, implying that although China intends to cultivate a stable and cooperative relationship with the US, it will not compromise its core interests, including the state-run economy, the shift of industry to higher-grade products, and unification with Taiwan, and a more robust presence on the world stage with OBOR.
The two sides agree on the importance of the military-to-military relationship to reduce the risk of misunderstanding at this sensitive juncture, and to develop a Crisis Deconfliction and Communication Framework. However, when it comes to broader security issues, the different priorities and interpretations are quite obvious. The US clearly puts Afghanistan, the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Xinjiang as the most important issues on the list, while China cares most about Taiwan and the South China Sea. The US is concerned with the peaceful resolution of disputes and freedom of navigation and calls on China to “withdraw missile systems from disputed features,” saying “all countries should avoid addressing disputes through coercion or intimidation”, while China emphasizes its indisputable sovereign rights in Chinese islands and related waters, and denies any “militarized” activities other than those for civil and necessary defense needs. China also asks the US to stop any activity that harms China’s sovereignty and security interests. However, both sides agree to maintain peace and stability, though each insists on doing it its own way.
On the Taiwan question, the US reasserts its commitment to “the U.S. One China policy”, based on the Taiwan Relations Act and the three joint communiques, and called on China to restore cross-Strait stability and respect Taiwan’s international space. It also opposes “unilateral actions by any party aimed at altering the status quo”, while China strongly opposes Taiwan independence and safeguards its sovereignty and territorial integrity. China has not mentioned the fact that a recent US warship passed the Taiwan Straits and showed some restraint, only calling on the US to stick to the One China policy. The US also raised concerns about “China’s lack of adherence to international obligations on human rights and religious freedom”, condemning China’s measures in Xinjiang as a “campaign of repression”.
In contrast, cooperation on North Korea has been a very important stabilizer to this currently bumpy relationship. The two sides recognize cooperation is essential to the final resolution of the issue and to reaffirm strict enforcement of UN resolutions. But China puts denuclearization, peace, stability, and dialogue first, while the US emphasizes “final, fully verified denuclearization” and the importance of maintaining pressure before reaching this goal. This shows the two sides agree on denuclearization as the common goal while differing on the path towards this end. The US still likely emphasizes maximum pressure while China treasures resolving this issue through peaceful means, believing rewards should be granted to the DPRK to ensure its further cooperation.
This reflects the current relationship between China and the US. While both want to maintain peace and stability, the underlying interests beneath this basic need are very different. Days ago the US reportedly offered to push forward stalled trade talks as the Chinese side falls short of its core demands. But it is also very hard for China to make “substantial” concession which affect its core interests in the eyes of the Chinese government and the Chinese people.