US-China at crossroads of strategic distrust?

Farwa Akbar
STRATEGIC distrust is a prominent feature of the Sino-US relations. Both sides have come to realise that engagement is a must to move forward. So, each year, more than sixty government-to-government dialogues take place to improve the level of mutual understanding but they are not as effective as expected. Both sides are clear that a constructive partnership should be built but how is a question remains unanswered. With Beijing and Washington clinging on to their old positions, the first round of the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (DSD) reveals that the issue of distrust is still unaddressed.
The US and Chinese senior officials met on June 21 to kick-start the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (DSD) in Washington. Similar to the high-profile meetings held between the US and its most reliable partners in Asia-Pacific (Australia and Japan), DSD was conducted on the formula of 2+2 (Defence and Foreign Minister) talks. Therefore, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence, James Mattis represented American side and State Councilor, Yang Jeichi and Chief of China’s Central Military Commission Joint Staff Department represented Chinese.
DSD is a promising development in the Sino-US relations, especially in the context of Trump’s anti-China election campaign. It reflects Washington and Beijing’s commitment to promoting stable bilateral ties through consensus. It is also in keeping with the previous administrations’ efforts in the White House to narrow down the differences and reach a common point of understanding on the contentious issues. The major deliverable of DSD is the realization, on both sides, that engagement has gone beyond the realm of the policy preferences and has become a fact of Sino-US bilateral relations. Another positive outcome was the avowal of the regular military-to-military interaction. However, American and Chinese positions haven’t changed yet; the senior officials mostly reaffirmed previous positions of the US and China on the issues brought in the discussion.
China opposed the development of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea and suggested that America should suspend its large-scale military exercises with South Korea. It asserted that Beijing had indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and its adjacent waters, therefore it had every right to defend its territories and safeguard its maritime rights. Washington, again, asked Beijing to do more to pressurize Pyongyang. In a press conference after the meeting, Rex Tillerson’s statement was very vague, giving no clear hint of what exactly is the US policy to fix the issue except asking China to ‘do more’ in this regard. He and General Mattis remained opposed to any change of status quo and the US positions in the South-China Sea. Tillerson boldly put out that America will keep asking China to improve the state of human rights. On the issues of cyberspace and nuclearization issues, he maintained that China should play a major role, which was an allusion to America’s resentment to China’s free-riding policies. The root causes of the strategic distrust remained unaddressed in DSD. Beijing called out for adopting rights attitudes towards each other’s intentions and the US for a responsible China. US decision makers see China’s future behaviour as uncertain and demand it to abandon free-riding policies and bring domestic reforms. Therefore, they insist a (US-thinks-best) behaviour from Beijing. And that they called out for in DSD also.
Chinese believe that the US wants to maintain its global hegemony and it will contain China. Washington recently abandoned its partners in Asia-Pacific by withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership and now its pledge in the dialogue to keep its military forward deployed in the Southeast Asian region doesn’t give an assuring signal to Beijing. In this milieu, US commitment towards its partners comes into question. It raises doubts in Beijing and contributes towards stirring strategic distrust. Chinese view the human rights promotion agenda as a handy option to sabotage the Chinese Communist Party; for them, it is an effort to divide and weaken China. America elsewhere violates human rights – Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan are just a few examples – but demands otherwise. Endorsed by US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence in DSD, these ambivalent policies of the US add to the strategic distrust on the Chinese side. The evolving Sino-US equation of power can rightly be characterized by the US decision makers’ inability to strike a balance between America’s declining economic influence and its military might. Confronting China militarily is not fruitful to the US beyond the ideals and rhetoric. This time, it should come to realize that the areas of strategic cooperation needs be defined. And that it must discard the very notion of “maintaining status quo” which is in contradiction with the dynamic changes taking place in the global economic and political landscape.
—The writer is research fellow at Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-tank based in Islamabad.
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