The countries are determined to cooperate—but there are icebergs on the horizonby Andrew Hammond / January 26, 2016 / Leave a comment
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US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top officials in Beijing on Wednesday. Top of the agenda is the potential imposition of international sanctions against North Korea following its latest nuclear test this month.
While Pyongyang will be centre stage in discussions, other issues forming the backdrop to the session include the fall-out from the recent Taiwanese presidential election won by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); regional security issues beyond North Korea, including in the South China Sea; Asia-Pacific regional economic integration; and the prospects for the global economy given international concerns about China’s 2016 outlook.
The US-China bilateral session caps off a long trip for Kerry that has seen him visit the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos (which has taken over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and Cambodia. During this intensive shuttle diplomacy, he has discussed the future of Syria and Ukraine with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov; met Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council ministers to try to reassure them about the thaw in US-Iran ties; and also planned the upcoming US-ASEAN Summit in California which takes place in the context of some of these same countries starting legislative ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
However, the China leg of the trip is potentially the most important for Kerry with the key decision pending about how to respond to North Korea’s latest provocation with its fourth test of an atomic weapon since 2006. The stage is set here for potentially difficult dialogue, and Washington is also considering a suite of unilateral measures, as it is encouraging Beijing to do.
The United States and some of its Asian allies, including Japan and South Korea, have made clear that they also want to see tough UN sanctions levied against the regime of Kim Jong-un. However, despite its criticism of North Korea’s latest actions, China remains reluctant to take sweeping measures against its erstwhile ally, including potentially cutting shipments of oil and food, for instance, or blocking access to banks.
The talks in Beijing over the scope and severity of any international sanctions could thus prove taxing. Ultimately, any agreement, which US officials assert is not close at the moment, is likely to centre around China approving only a limited version of what Washington is seeking.
Concerned as Beijing is about Pyongyang’s actions, it does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilised. From the vantage point of Chinese officials, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably, and/or the outside possibility of the implosion of the regime which would not be in Beijing’s interests, not least as it could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor nation.
While a US-China breakthrough on this issue is thus by no means guaranteed, prospects for narrowing of differences are somewhat increased by the fact that overall bilateral ties are, currently, in relatively positive shape, despite numerous irritants, including continuation of alleged cyber attacks on US interests by Beijing. The resilience of relations reflects, in part, the personal commitment of Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.
Both recognise the super-priority of bilateral ties and, under Obama, Washington has pursued a strategy with Beijing that promotes cooperation on issues like energy and climate change, while seeking constructive engagement on vexed issues like the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Xi has outlined, rhetorically at least, his desire to fundamentally redevelop a new type of great power relationship with the United States to avoid the conflictual great power patterns of the past. This is an audacious goal which still lacks any obvious definition, although it clearly reflects a desire to try to take unnecessarily confrontation off the table.
While there remains fragility and disagreements in bilateral relations, with potential set-backs on the horizon, the outlook for 2016 is thus relatively positive. There are multiple reasons for this from the vantage points of both Washington and Beijing.
While China continues to build its influence on the international stage, it has softened its stance on some issues since the first 18 months of Xi’s presidency when Beijing’s foreign and military positions and rhetoric had become significantly more pugnacious. This was showcased by the near-collision between a Chinese warship and the USS Cowpens in the South China Sea in December 2013 which the then-US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel blamed on “incendiary” and “irresponsible” Chinese behaviour. And also in August 2014 when a Chinese military fighter jet carried out what the Pentagon termed a “dangerous intercept” of a US surveillance aircraft, again over the South China Sea.
While assertiveness will not disappear from Chinese policy, there has been a greater reversion to more diplomacy and defusing of tension. For instance, unprecedented meetings have been held between the two nation’s defence policy planning staffs to promote greater understanding and dialogue. In part, this reflects the influence and changed calculations of Xi, now almost three years into his presidency, who has gradually extended his writ, including over the military.
Nevertheless, even in this relatively cooperative context, there are still potential icebergs on the horizon that could freeze relations. Firstly, China’s animus toward US sea and air manoeuvres near its borders remains high, and last October it tracked a US Navy warship that came close to reefs claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, calling the incident a “very serious provocation, politically and militarily.” As with the 2013 and 2014 naval and air incidents, further (potentially more serious) spats cannot be ruled out in 2016.
There is also potential of greater tension being introduced into the relationship through a regional ally of the United States, including Japan, or Taiwan following the election of DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. The prospect of a downturn in China-Taiwan relations in 2016 concerns Washington, with Chief of the US Navy Admiral John Richardson asserting last week “it’s going to be a factor in that theatre for sure.”
On the whole, however, US-China relations look to be in good shape—in the short-term, at least. This may help narrow key differences on North Korea. Significant downside risks remain in bilateral ties, but both parties appear to have resolved to manage tensions better, whilst cooperating more in areas, such as climate change, were there are potentially significant overlapping interests.