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Focus
A New Hope
China-U.S. relations depend on the two sides'ability to seek mutual prosperity
By An Gang | NO. 27 JULY 6, 2017
Scholars from Chinese think tank talk with U.S. farmers in Des Moines of Iowa on June 11 (XINHUA)

As one of the major follow-up agendas of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump's April meeting in Mar-a-Lago, the first round of China-U.S. Diplomatic and Security Dialogue was held in Washington, D.C. on June 21. Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Central Military Commission Joint Staff Department Chief Fang Fenghui and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis participated in the event.

At the dialogue, Yang said that the successful meeting between Xi and Trump set the course for a new era of China-U.S. relations, and that new and positive progress has been made in terms of bilateral ties between the two countries. He called on both sides to maintain the right direction for the bilateral relationship and promote China-U.S. relations to achieve more positive progress.

Tillerson said that relations between the United States and China have undergone a profound transformation over the past 40 years, and that the dialogue mechanism provides an opportunity to consider how the two nations are going to engage and live with one another over the next 40 years. Tillerson added that "in furthering this relationship, we need to work to expand areas of cooperation, as we did today, on issues where we have shared security interest."

The dialogue consolidated the consensus reached by the two presidents during their April meeting. The two sides pledged to make joint efforts in exploring new areas of mutually beneficial cooperation, manage differences on the basis of mutual respect, and promote the long-term healthy and stable development of the bilateral relationship. The two countries also agreed to have discussions on improving their interactions and probe new trust-building measures in the field of strategic security. On their military-to-military relationship, both sides vowed to follow through annual exchange programs and called for early visits of the two countries' defense chiefs. The two sides also pledged to deepen cooperation on areas such as humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy and military medical sciences and to implement memorandums of understanding on confidence-building mechanisms.

Mattis said that the talks were a unique opportunity for the United States and China to engage in philosophy-level discussions about the way ahead on shared security interests. The United States seeks a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China in which differences are managed when they arise. "Our two nations can and do cooperate in mutually beneficial ways," said Mattis.

The United States repatriates a felony suspect to China on June 1 (XINHUA)

The China-U.S. Diplomatic and Security Dialogue is one of the four high-level mechanisms established during the Mar-a-Lago meeting. The other bilateral dialogues—tackling issues regarding the economy, law enforcement and cybersecurity, as well as social and people-to-people exchanges—will also be held within the year. Notably, the China-U.S. Diplomatic and Security Dialogue platform is quite similar to the diplomatic and security coordination mechanism the U.S. has with its allies. Though China and the United States are not military allies, their relationship is more important than any other in the world. Therefore, the dialogue on diplomacy and security goes far beyond those of the U.S. and its allies.

The new summit

The latest dialogue helped pave the way for the upcoming Xi-Trump meeting during the G20 Summit in Hamburg in Germany.

Their Mar-a-Lago meeting ended a possible decline in China-U.S. relations and reached principled consensus to build a bilateral partnership on the basis of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. The two governments also reset their high-level dialogue mechanism, launched the 100-day plan framework for trade talks and agreed to strengthen coordination on regional security issues such as the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. These achievements elevated global expectations of better relations between China and the U.S.

After the Mar-a-Lago meeting, the two governments worked to implement the consensus reached between the two leaders. The Trump administration sent a high-level delegation to participate in the China-hosted Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May. This demonstrates that the U.S. side is adjusting its attitude toward China in the face of an evolving international situation.

On the day of the opening of the China-U.S.Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, Trump attended a public gathering in the state of Iowa together with Terry Branstad, the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to China. When addressing the gathering, Trump hailed his personal friendship with Xi. And days before, on June 18, Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner gave a special farewell dinner for Branstad at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. Branstad had served as governor of Iowa for many years and is a long-time friend of Xi.

China and the U.S. are developing new opportunities to expand cooperation. In the 2017 Select USA Investment Summit held in June, the Chinese delegation was the largest present, with more than 150 investors from different industries. The innovation, agricultural, energy and financial industries in the U.S. are also showing great interest in exploring the Chinese market.

After the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, Trump had a meeting with the Chinese delegation. Trump said that he was glad to see that China-U.S. cooperation in all fields has made positive progress since the Mar-a-Lago meeting. He looked forward to meeting Xi again at the G20 Hamburg Summit and to paying a state visit to China. He hoped to push forward bilateral relations for new development through the above mentioned high-level exchanges. Trump also noted that the United States is willing to conduct cooperation in relevant projects of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Beyond uncertainty

It is anticipated that the friendly atmosphere of mutual communication and coordination created at the Mar-a-Lago meeting will last for a period of time, at least until the end of the year. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean there will be no risk in bilateral relations in the future. On the contrary, friction between the two countries can still occur if there are dramatic changes to the regional or international status quo.

Case in point, there is no sign of a settlement being reached regarding the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. China was brought to the forefront by the Trump administration to put economic pressure on Pyongyang. The nuclear issue was even linked to trade between China and the U.S. by the Trump administration.

The death of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate who was detained by North Korea for 17 months, enraged the U.S. public and further constricted the space needed for the Trump administration to restart dialogue with Pyongyang. Will Trump use China as a scapegoat if his policy toward North Korea ends with failure? The uncertainty affects overall collaboration between China and the United States.

Moreover, one of Trump's major administrative goals is to reduce the U.S. foreign trade deficit. Statistics from the U.S. side show that China's trade surplus to the United States accounts for 47 percent of the U.S. foreign trade deficit. Though the 100-day plan framework for trade talks achieved early results, they were mainly in terms of exporting U.S. beef and agricultural products to China, and so were relatively easy to achieve. Negotiations on some tough-nut issues such as the regulatory treatment of U.S. enterprises in China, political discrimination that Chinese enterprises meet when investing in the U.S. market and U.S. restrictions on hi-tech product exports to China are all still far away. If Trump's expectations on China-U.S. trade talks go unfulfilled, it is possible that his administration will once again upbraid China about its alleged exchange rate issues, which may aggravate bilateral trade frictions. And if the Trump administration's reforms to the U.S. taxation system are to be implemented, their impact on China-U.S. economic relations should also be assessed accordingly.

In addition, although Trump is not as enthusiastic as his predecessor Barack Obama regarding disputes over the South China Sea, the U.S. military has maintained a tough stance over the issue, continuing to strengthen its presence in the region. Risk of friction or even conflict in the South China Sea continues to exist. One cannot rule out the possibility that the United States might once again provoke China over the South China Sea issue. After the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, Tillerson told the media that Washington's position on the South China Sea remains unchanged. "We oppose changes to the status quo of the past through the militarization of outposts in the South China Sea and excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law." The Chinese side stressed during the dialogue that the U.S. should abide by its commitment to not taking sides on relevant disputes concerning territorial sovereignty, respect China's sovereignty and security interests, and respect the efforts of regional countries to resolve disputes through peaceful negotiation. In addition, a potential arms sale to Taiwan would damper bilateral relations to a large extent.

Trump has been in power for almost half a year, but his administration has not yet acted in concert with the Washington establishment. Conflict between the Democratic and Republican parties continues under claims of alleged collusion between Trump and Russia. This only serves to hinder the Trump administration.

Against that backdrop, Trump still has to maintain a relatively moderate Asia-Pacific policy. But at the same time, he also needs to attain some diplomatic achievements, particularly in terms of trade and the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue to show the U.S. public his ability to solve problems. However, a lack of strategic thinking about overall China-U.S. relations would undermine future bilateral relations.

People pass by 28 Liberty Street in New York City on May 15. The building, formerly known as One Chase Manhattan Plaza, was purchased by China’s Fosun Group in 2013 (XINHUA)

In general, the relationship between China and the U.S. is moving toward the right direction but still needs to overcome both traditional and emerging problems. Therefore, the two governments should tread cautiously. And the most important thing for both sides is that they seek to settle their differences, manage uncertainties and discover common ground.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a researcher at the Pangoal Institution

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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