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Security Issues Top Kerry’s Beijing Agenda

Apr 10 , 2013

With security matters high on the agenda, John Kerry will have a number of important issues to discuss with his Chinese interlocutor during his first visit to China as the US Secretary of State. Obviously, North Korea, Iran, cyberspace, and maritime issues will account for the majority of his meetings in Beijing. Therefore, Kerry’s visit holds enormous weight as Beijing and Washington seek to maximize the benefits of his trip by crafting a more respectful and effective bilateral action plan.

Since the signing of the Korean War armistice in 1953, the flare on the Korean Peninsula has never been so high. Pyongyang and the rest of the world have entered a negative cycle of action-reaction by exchanging threats and sanctions. So far, America has not waivered on North Korea’s nuclear threats and the latter has challenged all UN Security Council resolutions that sanctioned its belligerent behaviors.

As it has neither enough fissile material nor experience in delivering a reentry vehicle with a nuclear payload, North Korea’s rhetoric of nuclear preemption against the US is not yet credible. However, the misperceptions of various stakeholders could go astray and result in strategic miscalculations when tensions are high. Therefore, Kerry’s visit to Beijing is critical to align Sino-US common interests and synergize their respective moves. While the US needs to play down its military response and give priority to talks with North Korea, China has to warn North Korea of Beijing’s red line. A message Chinese President Xi Jinping issued at the Boao Forum, without naming any particular countries.

In a similar vein, the Iranian nuclear issue is also a pressing matter. Despite the latest round of 6+1 talks in Almaty, Iran has refused to end uranium enrichment, regardless of UN Security Council demands. Thus far, the Iranian nuclear issue is rather different from the North Korean nuclear issue because Iran is officially denouncing nuclear weapons and still allows certain access to its nuclear facilities. In the meantime, the US government has cautioned Israel to allow time for peaceful settlement of this dispute. An eventual compromise to allow Iran limited rights to low-enriched-uranium is not impossible. Choosing between the sovereignty of fissile material and energy and financial sanctions, Iran has to make a sensible decision. China and the US should support each other to assure that Iran’s civilian nuclear program is truly only for peaceful purposes, allowing Iran’s economic ties with the rest of the world to go unimpeded.

Another important matter that concerns the White House is security in cyberspace. Facing an allegedly increasing amount of cyber-based threats, the Pentagon has decided as of late to quadruple its cyber force, with an eye on China. Though many cyber attacks against the US originate from China, Beijing has declared that it doesn’t have a net-force for internet security. Though the two countries could engage in endless arguments that an attack from a country-specific IP address doesn’t necessarily mean this particular country has intentionally launched the attack, more constructive approaches could be taken by discussing how to protect respective crucial infrastructures, and collaborating on the investigation and punishment of cross-border hacking. While understanding that espionage, either traditional or internet-based, will not easily disappear anytime soon, it is critical that China and the US strive to collaboratively protect their intellectual property rights. After all, they are the primary countries on that depend upon innovation for their wealth.

Clearly there is room for Kerry and his Chinese host to clarify their differences and search for common ground on various issues. Both Beijing and Washington share the fundamental interests of a nuclear weapon-free North Korea and Iran, and protecting each other from cyber attacks. However, each country can do more by collaborating on strategies for North Korea and Iran to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, China and the US shall not only protect their own domestic internet security, but work together to create a global code that could ultimately ban government-sponsored international hacking.

While Kerry may expect cooperation from his Chinese counterpart, China could also expect collaboration from dialogues with him. The Chinese side is especially concerned about America’s ‘rebalancing’. Although Washington may think its Asian ‘pivot’ is prompted by China’s high-handed stances at the time of its rapid rise, Beijing could well perceive that the US has instigated a plan to contain China’s legitimate maritime rights. For instance, the US has, in Beijing’s eyes, hindered mainland China from unifying the entire country for ages. More recently, America has plainly reversed its ambiguity concerning the Diaoyu Islands, reverting the islands back to Japan. Additionally, until 1997, the Philippines recognized through its constitutions and treaties with other countries that Huangyan Island didn’t belong to it. But now, Manila has reversed its position under the shadow of America’s rebalance.

Beijing will naturally urge the US to play an honest role by respecting historical facts in East Asia. When Washington asked China to abide by international law, China couldn’t agree more, as this would not allow Pentagon to sell weapons to Taiwan in the first place, per the United Nations Charter that set sovereignty as a pillar of contemporary international system. Furthermore, abiding by international law doesn’t mean Japan could steal China’s islands and, toughen its attitude toward China by “nationalizing” the islands with the support of US security assistance. All these have nothing to do with China’s violation of any international law.

This author is not of the opinion that before such issues of Taiwan, Diaoyu and Huangyan are resolved, China shall not partner with America and the international community to tackle North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues as well as to buttress international cooperation on cyberspace security. Nevertheless, when John Kerry and the US accords China with the proper respect, it shall facilitate their overall security partnership with greater assurance and confidence.

Shen Dingli is Professor and Associate Dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, China.

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