U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel spoke harsh words at the ending of his visit to China. His visit has drawn great attention and widespread speculation from the public concerning the direction of China-U.S. relations. The media has talked about China and U.S. military leaders’ “head-on” style with relish. In the end, how can the new U.S. secretary of defense's first visit to China be evaluated?
Ostensibly, this visit exposed the difference between the strategic attributes of these two countries and proved mutual suspicion of their militaries. However, these two parties have made progress in reorganizing China-U.S. strategic interest on the military level and promoted the approach to handling the two major countries' relations toward speaking aboveboard and communicating pragmatically. These are causes for celebration.
The military-to-military relationship has been complicated for China-U.S. relations, but that doesn't mean that these two parties are willing to maintain this status. They are promoting communication with unprecedented speed to ensure that the direction of their military-to-military relationship is consistent with country-to-country relations, which should get objective evaluation and full recognition.
In order to assess the visit of Hagel to China properly, two major aspects of development and change must be noted. First, the two militaries must clarify their bottom lines. This might not be a bad thing; China drew the “red line” on its core interest of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and stated a position of “no compromise, no concession, no negotiation, and no tolerance to any violation” on related issues. The U.S. drew the “red line” on maintaining the integrity of its alliance with Asia and prohibiting any countries to crowd U.S. military force out of the Western Pacific region. These two “red lines” keep a sane and reasonable distance, so face-to-face conflict between China and the U.S. doesn't need to happen.
Second, the defense ministers of China and the U.S. have made agreements on seven issues that set up the baseline for future development of military-to-military relationships. The main line of the seven consensuses is to jointly and sincerely build a new type of relationship between the two major countries and collaboratively promote the healthy development of a new model of military-to-military relations. The essential content is to impel a mutual notification system for major military activities, initiate discussion of an air and sea military security standard of conduct, and establish a dialogue mechanism for the two militaries as well as hold an Asia-Pacific security dialogue. These relative consensuses revealed that the main stream of the two countries and their militaries’ relations are moving toward a positive and controlled phase which shouldn’t be concealed by the differences and conflicts of these two parties.
Since the beginning of 2014, the China-U.S. relationship has experienced ups and downs as the two countries engaged in more intensive communications. The first meeting of the year among the countries’ leaders was held openly at The Hague in the Netherlands, and the first lady of the U.S. visited China alone. Antagonism between China and the U.S. has increased again as unusual situations have unfolded. The U.S. attempted to stand on one side with the pretense of helping to solve the East and South China Sea issues peacefully, and express its position on other issues such as the Dalai Lama, arms sales to Taiwan, network security and the RMB exchange rate.
After the Ukrainian crisis in Crimea, a high-level U.S. think tank reviewed U.S.-Russia relations and U.S. global strategic issues. Meanwhile, they never stopped paying attention to China. Mearsheimer reminded the U.S. government that Chinese strategic groups are “misjudging” the current situation, and eager to obtain “the fourth strategic opportunity” from the U.S. while the U.S. is fettered by European issues. The U.S. shouldn't rule out going back to the Asia-Pacific and “eventually restraining China, the only competitor to America in the future.”* Earlier within the U.S., there was a strong opinion that China was trying to collapse the U.S. strategy on the Asia-Pacific alliance through squeezing Japan and winning over South Korea. U.S. interests in Asia have never faced such an unprecedented challenge.
U.S. strategic groups’ thought reflected activities that high-level U.S. leaders have in mind. They are trying to have tacit understanding; no matter how complex the European and Ukraine situation is and how intense U.S-Russia relations are, the U.S. should never have a lax attitude on “rebalancing,” or give others the impression that the U.S. is too busy to take care of this business. Hagel and U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs [Daniel] Russel compared Crimea with Taiwan in a public dialogue, warning China not to “go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimidation.” They invoked China to “use the force of a big country responsibly.”* This is a reflection of their tacit understanding.
While Hagel was in China, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai talked about a new type of relationship between China and the U.S. when he attended a think tank conference in New York and Washington successively. Cui reaffirmed that China welcomes the U.S. to play a constructive role in Asia in responding to incisive questions asked by former U.S. politicians and scholars. Meanwhile, he indicated that a new type of relationship between the countries doesn’t mean political similarity between China and the U.S., and that China opposes any attempts to form an “Asian version of NATO.”* Cui emphasized that core interest is not like a basket that can hold everything, and that sovereignty and territorial integrity are the core interests of China. “Core interests are non-negotiable, but we didn’t mean to refuse any cooperation or communication with other countries,” Cui explained, “We should be cautious, and should never ignore the big picture of the China-U.S. relationship. We will never give anyone the illusion of using and controlling our divergence.”*
The unusual frequent appearance and straightforward remarks of Cui Tiankai indicate the Chinese government believes it is necessary to take action to bring positive attention in response to declining public opinion of the China-U.S. relationship and many other outstanding complex issues. China needs to clarify the growing misunderstanding within America about Chinese foreign strategy and policy toward the U.S., and maintain the development of a new relationship model between China and the U.S. It has to be admitted that this will be a long process of increasing trust and clearing up doubt; however, the current situation is not very favorable.
Hagel departed China just before U.S. President Obama planned to begin his trip in Asia. Beginning April 23, Obama will travel to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. This visit will reiterate the U.S. commitment to adjusting its strategy on “rebalancing" in the Asia-Pacific. The White House is painstakingly making the Asia-Pacific policy of the Obama administration a diplomatic victory by forging a defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines, potentially progressing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would involve moderation of relations between Japan and South Korea. The White House wishes to change the commonly-held impression that strategic adjustment is tasteless and meaningless.
Is this a “roar from a paper tiger?” Undergoing budget cuts, can the U.S. departments faithfully fulfill the “top-level design” of Obama’s government? There are doubts for sure. However, at least they won’t show weakness verbally. In the near future, the major concern of the U.S. will be appeasing its Asian allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, while not pacifying China. During his upcoming trip to Asia, Obama will make more statements about China indirectly, or maybe even directly. Though the U.S. will try to avoid provoking China by using careful words, the China-U.S. relationship will face inevitable new pressures and challenges.
No matter how firm Washington’s verbal commitment of promoting “rebalancing” is, it is a fact that the U.S. can’t bear the Asia-Pacific agenda alone. The White House started to realize that the U.S. needs cooperation from China. Otherwise, they not only can’t complete anything in Asia but also might suffer from the dark clouds of a cold war and mire from conflict. Washington needs to face its weakness and reconsider its policy and arrangement in Asia. To Obama, a visit to Asia without stopping by China might just confirm that no one can determine Asia’s future without China’s involvement.
In the next one to two months, China-U.S. relations might rapidly become more complex and dangerous. The next China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue this summer might be able to commence improvements. No matter what, China should deepen its breath and stick to the path of a new type of relationship between major countries. Meanwhile, the White House ought to think about the world's response to China’s policy during Obama’s visit to China in November.