Commentary: Expectations for reset in US-China relations must be managed
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s first face-to-face meeting with Chinese officials offers limited incentives for a diplomatic reset, but climate action and maritime leadership could serve as openings, says a foreign affairs commentator.
COLLEGE PARK, Maryland: In the first high-level in-person exchange since Biden took office, top diplomats from the United States and China will meet in Alaska starting Thursday (Mar 18) to set the trajectory of the world’s most consequential relationship.
To US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the meeting is an ideal chance to communicate human rights concerns, explore pathways for climate cooperation, and sharpen criticism of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
For Chinese diplomats Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, the stakes are different: A starting point for healthy competition is welcome, as long as Beijing’s One-China policy and internal matters are kept off limits.
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Amid these differences, there have also been calls for a time-out in rising tensions. Former World Bank chief economist Anne Krueger called for a reset in US-China trade relations earlier this month.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in end-January more broadly urged both sides to reset relations and cooperate on areas of mutual interest.
He might have a point. After all, common interests in freedom of navigation, fair trade and climate change could compel both countries to compartmentalise their differences.
LIMITED INCENTIVES FOR DIPLOMATIC RESET
Sullivan is determined to enter talks “from a position of strength”, and Blinken defines that position as a united front with Seoul and Tokyo against “China’s aggression and threats”.
Blinken’s inaugural visit to South Korea and Japan this week made clear that neither party is interested in treating China’s internal developments as its principal security threat, dashing hopes of leveraging ties to “get some changes” from Beijing.
In fact, Seoul and Tokyo’s broader interests are geopolitical, where facilitating US military deterrence and bolstering maritime response capabilities in disputed waters are key. Precisely for this variation in regional support, China is better positioned to sidestep US and underline the perils of external interference.
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The climate in Capitol Hill is also less conducive to compromise with Beijing. Lawmakers across party lines are preparing an Endless Frontier legislation worth at least US$110 billion to bolster US research and development, manufacturing and advanced technologies.
A reset now will also send mixed signals to the Quad – an informal grouping of Japan, India, Australia and the US – that has committed millions to vaccine supplies in Asia, particularly to counter Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy and held military exercises to challenge its growing influence in the region.
ADDRESSING FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION
A key area of contention is what each side perceives as aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the US freedom of navigation operations of disrupting regional stability in his wide-ranging annual press conference in early March, while China’s new coast guard law have raised concerns.
Japan – Washington’s closest ally in Asia – has stepped up criticism of Beijing’s coast guard vessels near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, threatening use of force should Chinese vessels emerge in close proximity to the claimed territories.
The US has repeated its commitment to the defence of Japan under Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty, labelling its commitment to Tokyo’s defence as “unwavering”.
Voices within Asia are also keen to see a US-China breakthrough materialise on this front but countries are also realistic about whether a change in the status quo can be achieved, given that zero-sum territorial disputes are at the heart of the matter and there are limits to ramping up defensive postures to counter China in these disputed waters by themselves.
READ: Commentary: US must confront China’s assertive, expansionist Asia strategy
Consider Vietnam. It has been building up bunkers, coastal defences and communications in the sharply contested Spratly Islands, but has struggled to bolster its case for sovereignty on the back of defence upgrades alone.
Philippines has also been ramping up naval presence on the eastern rim of the South China Sea. But unspecified redlines on naval exposure risk confrontation with Beijing, despite military assurances to the contrary.
Perhaps resolution rests in establishing expectations that operational manoeuvres will not see escalation. For this reason, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s calling on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “press ahead” with negotiations over a code of conduct between China and member states on the South China Sea is to be welcomed.
The arrangement will also allow Beijing to win credit with key territorial claimants in the region, while upholding a “rules-based international system” in Southeast Asia that Washington can agree on.
PREPARING THE GROUND FOR CLIMATE COOPERATION
An area where the US and China can put on a show of consensus is climate action.
Thursday’s meeting could extend long-sought focus on carbon neutrality strategies and clean power investments. Both sides have expressed an interest in putting aside differences and breaking new ground on climate change.
As of 2020, Beijing and Washington contributed US$220 billion to the global low-carbon economy, and are gradually lifting their share of energy from non-carbon sources.
Over two-thirds of Americans want Washington to accelerate climate action if Beijing does, and a clear majority support joint partnerships to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Conditions at the domestic level are equally enabling. Both governments are pressuring high-emission industries to demonstrate compliance with anti-pollution regulations at the local level.
READ: Commentary: Is China too big to tame? No easy answers to Quad’s central challenge
Plans are also underway to step-up smog emission caps, expand nuclear power capacities and extend regulatory oversight to high-pollution sectors.
One reason why diplomats are likely to commit to climate cooperation is the absence of political trade-offs. US climate envoy John Kerry made it categorically clear last month that climate cooperation with Beijing would not serve as a “trade-off" for other issues.
The Biden administration’s aim of countering China’s economic influence and modifying its trade practices is bound to sustain.
But the added objective of securing concessions from China – on issues related to trade and intellectual property rights – poses a different challenge.
Delivering on the latter would mean delineating key elements in China’s economic behaviour that deny US companies and workers “a level playing field".
Blinken is confident he can establish that connection in real-time. A case in point is Biden’s February exchange with Chinese President Xi Jinping, where he communicated concerns about Beijing’s “coercive and unfair” trade practices.
China responded weeks later by lifting Seoul’s export-oriented growth to new highs, fast-tracking free-trade negotiation plans with Japan, and overtaking the US as EU’s largest trading partner – a bloc roundly committed to free and fair competition.
Washington should be careful to note, however, that trade could be a double-edged sword and a lever for China to maximise influence.
READ: Commentary: Taiwan is becoming the biggest test in US-China relations
Australia was punished with a slew of retaliatory trade measures after it called for investigations into China’s initial management of the coronavirus last year.
Ultimately, the Biden administration’s first face-to-face meeting with Chinese officials offers limited incentives for a diplomatic reset, but provides several openings on climate action and potentially maritime leadership.
Any degree of Sino-US convergence will be of value to allies in Asia: The knowledge that competition and cooperation are finally in sync.
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Hannan Hussain is a foreign affairs commentator and recipient of the Fulbright Award at the University of Maryland.