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Foreign Policy

Third-Party Cooperation No Easy Task

Feb 20, 2024
  • Zhong Yin

    Research Professor, Research Institute of Global Chinese and Area Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University

Third-party factors once provided both opportunities and challenges in Sino-U.S. relations. However, with U.S. policy toward China entering a new normal of comprehensive competition, the room for cooperation has been narrowed. As the relationship improves, possibilities and potential for cooperation by third parties should be explored to promote more constructive and healthy relations in the days to come. However, serious hurdles must be overcome if any meaningful breakthrough is to be made in this regard.

The first hurdle is the negative framing by the United States of third-party issues in a narrative of Sino-U.S. relations in which America is portrayed as the judge and China as the lawbreaker. In his recent speech made at Council on Foreign Relations on Sino-U.S. relations, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan demonstrated a typical way of thinking on some urgent third-party issues on the agenda. According to Sullivan, U.S. efforts to shape or change the People’s Republic of China over several decades “did not succeed.” Because China “will be a major player on the world stage,” he said, the U.S. is prepared to work with it “when our interests call for it.” He referred to Ukraine, Iran and North Korea as potential areas for cooperation.

However, instead of seeking common ground, he raised a caution flag, saying that the U.S. should be “vigilant about the PRC’s support for Russia’s war against Ukraine and its efforts to help Russia reconstitute its defense industrial base.” Rather than understanding China’s core interests in the South and East China Seas and the Taiwan Strait, he instead emphasized, once again, America’s self-proclaimed principle of “freedom of navigation” and the importance of promoting trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea. This connotes, in a rather unfriendly — even hostile — way that cooperation in any third-party area is out of place. 

Moreover, U.S. actions that are directly detrimental to China’s interests render China’s cooperation in various regions irrelevant. The U.S. regards the Korean Peninsula as a strategic pillar of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Although reiterating once again the intention to open dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea without preconditions, America has made provocative moves, such as boosting nuclear deterrence cooperation with the Republic of Korea, vigorously promoting a de facto trilateral military alliance with Japan and the ROK and increasing its military presence in the region by sending more strategic assets (aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines). All this has nullified any possibility for constructive engagement.

Since last year, there has been a downward spiral of North-South relations, in which each side regards the other as its foremost enemy, and the military race between them has intensified greatly. As the ROK reinforces its relations with both the United States and Japan, the DPRK has strengthened ties with Russia to a “new strategic height.” This year, both sides began to conduct military exercises with live fire at sensitive sites on the frontier, suggesting a dangerous emerging trend.

Under its Indo-Pacific Strategy, in addition to cultivating strategic cooperation through AUKUS and the Quad and connecting the European and Indo-Pacific alliances through the G7 and NATO, the U.S. also upgraded its relationship with Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Indonesia and strengthened its cooperation in the Pacific Islands and ASEAN as a whole. In this effort, doing away with China is the main concern. Thus it aims not only to decouple more with China’s economy but also to realize other strategic goals, including those involving the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

In the Middle East, the United States has consistently condemned China’s position on the Israel-Hamas conflict, which in its eyes is pro-Palestinian and lukewarm on Israel. Recently, new sanctions have been imposed on Chinese citizens who have been accused of smuggling military-related materials to Iran, further alienating the U.S. from China on regional issues.    

Behind all these unfavorable words and actions, there is a wide gap in both interest and perception between the U.S. and China. As Sullivan’s speech made clear, the U.S. judgment of China as “the only state with both the intent and the power to reshape the international order” has not changed. Although he admits the how consequential the relationship is, the fundamental way of dealing with China — through all-around competition — has not changed. Thus cooperation is solely a vehicle to serve America’s “compete and win” purpose and must be conducted within America’s parameters. This will certainly put China on unequal footing. The U.S. cannot expect China’s enthusiastic cooperation on one hand while containing China across all fields on the other. To engage with each other based on the principle of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation is the only way to break the deadlock.

As for the Red Sea and the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, China shares the global consensus that the stakes are high. The safety of energy and trade are paramount, and promoting de-escalation conforms to the interest of both China and the United States. However, calming the conflict and reaching an armistice as soon as possible should be the first step, toward which U.S. should do more. On Ukraine, rather than providing military aid that meets with increasing domestic and international setbacks, the U.S. needs to consider seriously China’s suggestion for dialogue and negotiation to find a solution.

The current tensions on the Korean Peninsula are not serving China’s interests, either. But the root cause is U.S.-DPRK confrontation more than anything else. The resolution process that had started in 2018 failed for lack of positive rewards for North Korea for its denuclearization endeavors, and also the failure to consider its legitimate concerns. To resume talks, the United States should set aside further sanctions and military provocations, so as to foster a favorable climate for dialogue. China and the U.S. can also engage in talks for managing crises and maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula.

Now the good news is that both sides have agreed to strengthen cooperation in different areas, which is basic for safeguarding the stability and development of international society. But to ensure meaningful cooperation with concrete results, the U.S. needs to do more.

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