Candid talks constructive

Consultations between the United States and China bridge gaps in understanding and help prevent misjudgments

Regional security in the Asia-Pacific region has drawn a great deal of international and domestic attention for years. The cause is not the likelihood of rivalry between Beijing and Washington, but the growing concern about possible “flash points”, ranging from sea disputes between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, the forthcoming launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, and the greater “assertiveness” of Chinese foreign policy.

The attention is usually focused on Sino-US relations, as this relationship is regarded as determining stability, peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

Pleasingly, Beijing and Washington are trying to face this challenge and shoulder their responsibilities. The first-round of China-US Consultations on the Asia Pacific, held in Hawaii in late June, marks the resolve of China and the United States to boost policy understanding and collaboration in the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, and his American counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, had a day-long discussion, which was described as “friendly, candid and constructive”.

However, the message from the first round of consultations seems mixed, signaling both the mutual desire for cooperation and the incontestable complexity of Sino-US relations.

While, both sides made clear a number of essential policies in the region – for instance, Cui stressed that a peaceful solution to the South China Sea spat would benefit all parties, and Campbell said that the US welcomes a “stronger China” – it was also apparent that Sino-US ties are short on trust, and there was little agreement on a wide range of issues, from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, to US arms sales to Taiwan and even the definition of the freedom of navigation.

But despite the mixed message, both sides seem content with the first set of talks. No one assumed that one round of the talks would resolve all the differences between them, but the talks were judged by both parties to be a positive mechanism that will, if continued, certainly help build mutual trust.

Recent years have witnessed a tangible change in Sino-US relations. But this change has not manifested itself in their policies and strategies toward each other. In other words, the change hasn’t been “structural”. Given the contrast in economic performance between the two countries, people might cynically contend that the US is declining while China is rising, but the power disparity between China and the US remains vast, and US primacy stays in almost all areas.

Instead, the changes have been in perception and sensibility. For example, some Chinese people, excited about the GDP indicator, want to reposition China in the Asia Pacific, while some Americans are intent on holding a tight string to prevent Beijing from eroding American strategic assets in East Asia.

Beijing repeatedly asserts that China’s rise will be peaceful, but this finds little echo in the US, and Washington reiterates that it does not seek to act toward China as it did toward the Soviet Union, which finds little audience in China.

If distrust drives animosity, the Sino-US relationship has never been more worrying, or more pernicious.

In this sense, the healthy evolution of Sino-US relations requires cooperation, collaboration, and restraint. Trust is not a fruit that is easily picked. The two powers will not realize “mutual respect and win-win partnership” unless they create the opportunity to reflect on their agenda seriously and honestly. The first China-US Consultations on the Asia Pacific will help create this opportunity.

Given the fluidity of world affairs, even countries as powerful as the US and China cannot manipulate regional politics. Instead the consultations were aimed at synchronizing the two countries’ goals and policies and reducing misperceptions and distrust as much as possible.

China has added greatly to regional prosperity and stability since its reform and opening-up. But the challenge for Beijing is how to exercise its growing power and influence in a way that promotes trust. The challenge for the US is how to accommodate Beijing’s legitimate interests, while maintaining its dominant status.

Therefore, the significance of the consultations is they help build functional bridges between Beijing and Washington that will eliminate misjudgments. Without the consultations, “surprises” might threaten the stability of the bilateral ties.

The ministerial meeting of the 2011 ASEAN Regional Forum began on Sunday and the South China Sea is in the spotlight once again, but the consultations suggest that anyone who bought a ticket hoping to watch China and the US squabbling will be disappointed.

The author is deputy director of the Center for International & Strategic Studies, and professor of the School of International Studies, Peking University.

Source: China Daily

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