Interests outweigh obstacles in Sino-US ties

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-22 20:43:01

Steve Orlins Photo Wang Wenwen/GT

Editor's Note:

There has been an escalation in tensions between China and the US over the South China Sea lately. The debate around Sino-US relations has heated up over how the two can best avoid a clash in the South China Sea, as well as in cyberspace and beyond. Prior to the seventh round of China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) held in Washington this week, Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen spoke with Steve Orlins (Orlins), president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, over the trends in the bilateral relationship.

GT: What topics will be on the agenda at the S&ED?

Orlins: The S&ED has many sub-groups that cover virtually every issue that the US and China have, from things that we cooperate on like anti-terrorism, climate change, anti-piracy, bilateral investment to things that we do not see eye to eye on such as the South China Sea issue.

This year is different only in the respect that it will lay the groundwork for Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the US at the end of September.

China and the US should schedule one leadership visit a year and alternate host countries. It is so important that the two countries have both good people-to-people relations and top-down leadership. The core of China-US relations is strong, but the margins have a lot of problems. The presidents can fix those problems and reset their relationships before the problems on the margins become problems in the core.

GT: Do you think a China-US conflict is imminent in the South China Sea?

Orlins: Absolutely not. Both countries should and are exercising restraint. A conflict is neither helpful to China's development nor the US' position in the world.

There are disagreements over the meaning of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China believes that US military vessels that pass through the waters may not do it without its permission. The US believes that military vessels can do it without notification. There is no dispute over what commercial vessels can do in the exclusive economic zone.

Our complementary interests outweigh our conflicting interests. It is so important that we coordinate so that we can manage differences and strengthen the complimentary interests.

GT: Many well-known US experts have lately made pessimistic comments on Sino-US ties. Orville Schell wrote that "there is presently no significant core constituency in America still well-disposed toward China." Do you think such assessments are too harsh?

Orlins: There are lots of core constituencies in favor of constructive China-US relations. The business community that invests in China and does tens of billions of dollars worth of business in China is strongly in favor of it. Most within the diplomatic community, and the departments of State, Treasury, Commerce and Defense believe constructive US-China relations support economic growth and world peace and believe China thinks the same.

Schell is partly correct in that the business community is less pro-China than it was a decade ago. They believe the business environment in China for foreigners has deteriorated and there is discrimination against foreign businesses. Enforcement of the anti-monopoly law is much harsher toward foreign businesses than Chinese ones.

GT: Some US observers believe China's rise has resulted in escalating tensions between China and some of its neighbors, while China insists on its peaceful development. How can the two narrow the gap of understanding in this aspect?

Orlins: Because China is developing and will become the largest economy in the world in a few years, its actions are interpreted differently than 20 years ago. China needs to gauge the reactions of its neighbors. China for many years was on a soft power diplomatic initiative and was quite successful persuading its neighbors that it would peacefully develop. Three years ago, its neighbors perceived that it was shifting from soft power persuasion to the use of harder power. While China is reacting to what Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan are doing, its actions are interpreted differently. If it was in 1992, neighbors would care less about its actions. But it is 2015 and China is becoming bigger and more powerful. Therefore, it needs to calibrate its responses.

China has a record of successfully negotiating its land border disputes. If China could similarly settle its maritime territorial disputes, that would assure its neighbors enormously.

GT: I notice that in your previous interviews, you were quite critical toward the Obama administration's China policy and concerned about the government's miscalculations toward China. It was in 2014. Do you still hold such a belief? Why?

Orlins: While the core of US policy remains sound, on the margins, this administration has made a number of policy decisions with which I disagree. For example, I strongly disagreed with the Obama administration's position on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Why would the US not support China making infrastructure investments in Asia? It is exactly what a "responsible stakeholder" should do. It's good for China, the US and the world. It just didn't make any sense. It suggested a deep mistrust of Chinese decision-making.

The US position on the Diaoyu Islands insufficiently recognized that Japan was wrong in what it did in 2012. The Japanese changed the status quo and violated the 40-year-old agreement made between Deng Xiaoping and Kakuei Tanaka and our policy didn't take that into account. Because Japan is our ally, we should have made greater efforts to prevent them from changing the rules and plunging Japan-China relations into a crisis. But we didn't.

Our pivot policy is a failure. It was flawed conceptually and flawed in its implementation. The policy is the worst of both worlds.

ASEAN and Japan don't believe we are committed to the pivot/rebalance and the Chinese are angry that US policy seeks to contain them. So we get no benefit from ASEAN, Japan or China. The next president should abandon this failed policy.

The new president should be clear that the majority of our economic relations are already in the Asia-Pacific as they have been since 2000. She should emphasize that our most important diplomatic relationships are in the Asia-Pacific. We will have disagreements with China, ASEAN and Japan on many diplomatic and economic issues, as we do with friends and allies around the world.

Strategically, she should not emphasize that we are pivoting to Asia but that with China we are looking for ways to deal with the real threats to America and the world in the 21st century. The real threats we confront are terrorism, climate change, along with financial and economic disasters.

We should increase the number of diplomats that we have in China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and India and around the region. That's good for America. Do we need more ships, planes and advanced weaponry to confront these threats? I don't think so.

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