Kerry Inherits a Drifting Relationship with China

April 8, 2013
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

John Kerry comments on U.S.—China relations during his confirmation hearings.

Chinese State Councilor and former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the phone last week, reportedly about a wide range of unresolved issues between the two nations. Kerry is preparing to make his first visit to China as Secretary of State later this week. U.S. and Chinese leaders claim to aspire to a constructive relationship and the view from the White House is that they are making significant progress towards that goal. That is not how things look from Beijing.

The Obama administration, with a justifiable sense of accomplishment, speaks often about its multi-channel bilateral dialogs with China, especially the Strategic and Economic Dialog (SED) and the Strategic Security Dialog (SSD). But as Kenneth Lieberthal notes in an open memo to the President, these dialogs have not been satisfying for either side.

A Chinese View of Relations

Fan Jishe, Deputy Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Studies in the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is familiar with the conduct and evolution of several U.S.—China dialogs. In a recent article, Dr. Fan describes the current state of the relationship as having entered “a period of strategic drift.” His assessment deserves careful U.S. consideration.

“The Wilsonian China policy Obama adopted included many unrealistic expectations. These expectations did not seek an exchange of interests, an attainment of consensus or a reconciliation of differences, but required China to accommodate U.S. interests and concerns in many different areas, specifically:

    • The purpose of welcoming China to play a greater role in international affairs was hoping China would take on greater responsibility.
    • The goal of strengthening cooperation with China in non-proliferation was expecting China to keep in step with the U.S. agenda on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear problems by putting pressure on North Korea and Iran.
    • Advancing sustainable, reliable development in military to military relations was aimed at unilaterally increasing Chinese “transparency” through dialog about U.S. concerns in the areas of air, space, nuclear and cyberspace.
    • Appropriately handling the problems of military security and maritime security was assuring the activities of U.S. naval vessels in China’s exclusive economic zone would not be hindered and that close U.S. surveillance of Chinese airspace and seas would not be affected.
    • Expressing support for the one-China policy and respect for the three U.S.—China communiques on the one hand, while hoping to continue to sell arms to Taiwan on the other.
    • Respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity, but hoping for no interference with President Obama meeting the Dalai Lama.
    • Hoping to reduce the deficit and encourage individual savings, but continuing to put pressure on China to appreciate the Renminbi.
    • Recognizing the importance of open trade and investment to one’s own economy and the global economy and opposing protectionism but hoping only that China open’s its market, refusing both the entry of Chinese capital into the U.S. and the relaxation of the export control policy toward China.
    • Hoping that China would exert effort at the Copenhagen Climate Summit but still marking time itself.

Dr. Fan borrows the “Wilsonian” moniker from U.S. historian John Milton Cooper Jr. to help describe the Obama administration’s early efforts to convey to China, and the rest of the world, that U.S. foreign policy had changed for the better. Fan notes that unlike past U.S. administrations, the new U.S. President avoided getting off to a rough start with China. This led to high expectations for increased U.S.—China cooperation on a variety of issues from climate change to nuclear arms control.  But bilateral relations quickly began to deteriorate and never recovered. President Obama and his aides blame China. However, many Chinese analysts and observers, including those with favorable attitudes towards the United States, complain the Obama administration displays no apparent sense of a need for reciprocity.

Dr. Fan identifies the climate summit in Copenhagen as the moment when the U.S. President “lost hope” in a more positive relationship and lost confidence in the advisers who promoted it—advisers who left the administration in the months following the summit. Fan argues the positive atmosphere of the early days of Obama’s first term created a “false impression” that was a product of policies that “in large measure shelved the disagreements and contradictions in the U.S.—China bilateral relationship but did not resolve them.”

Kerry and the Impact of the Pivot

His expectations for cooperation dashed, President Obama initiated his now famous “pivot” to Asia. China policy switched from pursuing cooperation with a potential partner to strengthening old alliances as a hedge against a potential competitor. Dr. Fan believes the ostentatious quality of the Obama administration’s rhetoric promoting its “return to Asia” strengthened confrontational constituencies in both countries, narrowing the political space available to leaders seeking accommodation on any of the inherent disagreements between the world’s largest developing nation and the leader of the developed world. From China’s point of view, while U.S. rhetoric may continue to create the appearance of a desire for cooperation, the “pivot” sends a different message that pulls the relationship in the opposite direction.

Senator Kerry questioned the necessity of the overtly military aspects of the “pivot” to Asia during his confirmation hearings. He also expressed an astute concern for how the shift in President Obama’s China policy was perceived as containment. Secretary of State Kerry can use the influence of his new office to stop the drift towards increased competition and conflict.  The Chinese believe their intentions are misunderstood and their concerns ignored. Improving the bilateral dialog by demonstrating a U.S. willingness to listen, rather than going over an all too familiar laundry list of U.S. concerns, could be Secretary Kerry’s best chance to make his mark on the history of U.S.—China relations.