Sino-US tension eases in runup to talks

Sino-US tension eases in runup to talks
US military patrol in the South China Sea

Following months of diplomatic clashes over the South China Sea, Sino-US relations seem to be headed for calmer waters after key events in the lead-up to a major meeting between the two countries.

The maritime tension may have been eased by a top Chinese military official's visit to the US this month, and by the fact that US President Barack Obama suffered a setback to his hopes of pushing through the Trans-Pacific Partnership - a development that might result in a renewed focus in Washington on its ties with China.

The TPP is a proposed regional investment and regulatory treaty.

The South China Sea issue should not be an insurmountable obstacle between the two powers, observers said ahead of the latest China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a meeting to be held in Washington from Tuesday to Wednesday.

Observers said that the South China Sea has become the front line of Sino-US diplomatic wrangling as the Southeast Asia region assumes increasing importance for Washington's Asia "pivot", and that backing down is not an option for either country.

But they dismissed the possibility that the islets in the sea are steppingstones on the path to war for the world's two largest economies.

Both sides are pragmatic about their huge shared interests and will not allow the maritime issue, representing a fraction of the relationship, to substantially affect those interests.

State Councilor Yang Jiechi, a top foreign policy official, Vice-Premier Wang Yang, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew will attend the dialogue to address what the US State Department said are "challenges and opportunities that both countries face" in areas "of immediate and long-term economic and strategic interest".

It is a storyline that is repeated every year: a war of words between China and the United States over the South China Sea heats up for months until a climax is reached when senior military officials from both countries, among others, gather at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual Asian security forum held at the end of May.

There have been differences this year, including a new focus on China's construction work on some of its islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands and the involvement of a slew of big names, including the US president, the country's top diplomat and China's ambassador to the US, senior military officers and diplomats.

'US hands are tied'

Tao Wenzhao, a senior researcher on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Washington views China as the one nation that has the potential to challenge its global leadership, and believes maintaining dominance in the western Pacific is vital for sustaining its leading role in the region.

"US hands are relatively tied on the Asian mainland as China maintains good relations with its neighbouring countries on land.

Therefore the western Pacific, with territorial rows between China and some Asian countries, has become a major diplomatic battlefield where the US can compete with China," he said.

China has competing territorial claims over parts of the South China Sea with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

The resource-rich sea is a key shipping route, with around US$7 trillion (S$9.4 trillion) in international trade passing through it annually.

Beijing has issued several detailed statements about its construction projects on the Nansha Islands, saying the territory falls within its sovereignty and the work is for peaceful purposes.

The reasons the US gives for its opposition include guaranteeing freedom of navigation, the prospect of China's militarization of the islands and its commitment to its allies.

Jia Xiudong, a senior international affairs researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, said Washington's motives seem more concerned about the pace of its Asia "pivot" strategy than about China's moves.

While rival claims over fishing grounds and shipping lanes in the South China Sea go back decades, they flared up in 2010, foreshadowing Washington's pivot strategy, announced in 2011.

Since then, the issue has become more complicated, Jia said.

Even though Washington has toned down its remarks recently, it is likely that, during the runup to the US presidential election, candidates hoping to secure their party's nomination will try to demonstrate their foreign policy credentials by targeting China over the South China Sea and other issues, Jia said.

Singapore's The Straits Times wrote on May 31 that when the US and Chinese delegations entered the ballroom for the first plenary session at the Shangri-La Dialogue, "the air was filled with expectancy" and "many, including the Chinese military delegation, expected another verbal fusillade from the Pentagon leader".

Instead, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter talked a lot about the importance of regional co-operation and the willingness to promote US-China military co-operation, even through he urged all countries, including China, Vietnam and the Philippines, to halt construction.

A change in tone

Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, detected a subtle change in the US' tone, followed by that of Southeast Asian nations, at the forum.

"Washington understands the consequences of US-Sino confrontation, and conflict is not on the agenda," said Wang.

"Still, it has to issue criticisms of China over the South China Sea to show its muscle and commitment to its Asian allies."

Adding to the toned-down trend, General Fan Chang-long, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, accomplished the highest-level trip by a Chinese military official to the US since November 2012.

The nations signed a China-US army dialogue mechanism agreement, the first co-operation document to be signed by the two armies in recent years, and vowed to reach agreement on the air-to-air annex to the code of conduct on military encounters, before President Xi Jinping visits the US in September.

Both countries may hold joint exercises based on the code of conduct to make sure its terms are implemented correctly, and the US has invited China to attend the Rim of the Pacific exercises next year.

Fan told Carter that the South China Sea issue is only an episode in the history of China-US ties, and that the two sides should take the higher ground and look to the future by paying more attention to other, more important, regional and international issues.

Jin Canrong, deputy dean at the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, said that the South China Sea has overshadowed overall ties, and that this is not in the best interests of the US.

China is not the country that started construction work, and its stance of peacefully resolving disputes remains unchanged, said Jin, adding that the US stirred up the militarilization of the region and has a responsibility to ease the tension.

Policy unchanged

On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said China will complete its land reclamation project on some islands and reefs in the Nansha Islands in coming days as planned.

Mira Rapp Hooper, a South China Sea expert at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China's announcement of an end to the construction may have been timed with the aim of reducing the diplomatic temperature ahead of the meeting that starts on Tuesday, but it did not indicate any change in Chinese policy, Reuters reported.

Tao, the researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said both countries are clear on each other's stance and their huge shared interests, including the ongoing negotiations over a bilateral investment treaty.

There is a consensus that they need to avoid conflict, since the South China Sea issue is unlikely to be solved in the near future, Tao added.

China and the US are each other's second-largest trading partners, with two-way trade reaching US$555 billion last year.

"The upcoming China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue will achieve positive results that are in both sides' interests, and the relationship needs to keep moving forward," Tao said.

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