This week, China will join 26 other nations at the U.S.-hosted RIMPAC 2016 (Rim of the Pacific) naval exercise amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and an impending ruling at The Hague regarding China’s actions in the region. The participation of China’s military in the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise signals to the world that, despite the heightened rhetoric, there remain much-needed opportunities for Washington and Beijing to continue strengthening the bilateral cooperation critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s oceans.
As one of the most contested areas in the world, the South China Sea has been dominating headlines in anticipation of RIMPAC 2016. China’s territorial claims and island building have raised tensions in the region, alarming neighboring nations and the U.S. alike. The delicate yet vital relationship between the U.S. and China has been strained in recent months, affecting all aspects of the relationship. However, continuing and deepening our dialogue with China remains vital to the world’s interest and ours.
China, the second largest economy in the world, is playing an increasingly larger role in global affairs. On a delegation to China last month with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress and the China-United States Exchange Foundation, it was clear to me that an open and constructive relationship between Washington and Beijing remains one of the most important mechanisms to confronting the challenges facing the world in this century. Our cooperation and engagement with China has led to major international successes in recent months.
At COP 21, last year’s UN climate summit in Paris, the U.S. and China were able to overcome a multitude of differences to reach a landmark agreement on the most pressing global challenge: climate change. Without the “working partnership” that Secretary Kerry noted, including the U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change in September, COP 21 would have been chalked up as another failed global conference, with developed and developing nations unable to reach any type of consensus.
China has extended this “working partnership” mentality with the U.S. to its dealing with many of the most pressing threats facing the world today. China played a crucial role in advancing the Iran deal by supporting compromises, such as the one over the Arak heavy-water reactor. When North Korea’s alarming nuclear and missile activity led the United Nations Security Council to discuss heavier sanctions on Pyongyang, China has worked with the U.S. to pass common sense measures. Beijing recently went a step further, banning exports to North Korea of goods that could be used in the development of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. China’s pivotal positions during these crises demonstrate its ability play a constructive role in global affairs, and the U.S. should encourage such continued engagement.
However, going forward, the U.S. must also hold China accountable for its actions that fall outside of international norms. For that reason, and despite the upcoming ruling at The Hague, economics and energy must remain at the heart of our relations with China, as their cooperation in these sectors is necessary for our success. Economic cooperation with China played a large part in driving the world out of the 2008 “Great Recession,” and such cooperation will only benefit the United States in the future. China’s political and economic power, which can now have far reaching benefits and consequences, demands it to be a responsible stakeholder in cyberspace, human rights, trade, territorial disputes, and climate change.
Communication and understanding will be key in the delicate times ahead. That is why RIMPAC is paramount in increasing transparency and understanding between the world’s navies. Similarly, other bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, such as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, are also instrumental in formalizing conversation across dozens of agencies on both sides of the Pacific so that we can minimize misunderstandings and avoid disasters.
Moving forward, the U.S. and our allies must remember that no matter the heightened rhetoric on the South China Sea issue, dialogue with China has the potential to prevent conflict and help China to better understand its actions have an enormous impact not only on its people, but the world.