Page 1 of 4 Friction and cooperation for China, US
By Bonnie Glaser and Brittany Billingsley
In pursuit of agreements reached between Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama
in January, the United States and China worked to strengthen their
relationship, while managing friction on a number of issues.
Renewed tensions in the South China Sea put maritime security at the top of the
agenda in many bilateral and multilateral interactions, including the inaugural
US-China Consultations on Asia-Pacific Affairs, at the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum meeting in Bali, and in a bilateral
meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and State Councilor Dai
Bingguo in Shenzhen.
In early May, the third annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED)
convened in Washington, DC. Despite protests from
Beijing, Obama met the Dalai Lama. In May and July, People's Liberation Army
(PLA) chief of the General Staff General Chen Bingde and Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen exchanged visits. In August, Joe Biden made
his first visit to China as vice president.
South China Sea is high on the agenda
The South China Sea featured prominently in US-Chinese interactions in this
four-month period. Tensions flared in May and June in a spate of incidents that
involved Chinese intimidation and harassment of other claimants. Chinese forces
shot at Filipino fisherman, deployed navy patrol boats to chase off an oil
exploration vessel, and unloaded building materials and erected posts on an
uninhabited reef 230 km from the Philippines' southwestern Palawan province.
Chinese fishing boats and patrol vessels harassed Vietnamese oil exploration
ships operating in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, in one case severing
survey cables of a PetroVietnam ship. In another incident, Hanoi charged that
Chinese sailors boarded a Vietnamese fishing boat and beat its captain before
releasing him and stealing the crew's catch.
In the wake of the incidents, the US and Vietnam issued a joint statement
following annual bilateral talks in Washington that called for the maintenance
of peace, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea
and rejected the use of force. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario
traveled to the US for consultations and was promised help in acquiring
affordable material and equipment that would enable the Philippine military to
defend itself. In a joint press conference with del Rosario, Secretary Clinton
noted that the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty "continues to serve as
a pillar of our relationship and a source of stability in the region."
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper met del Rosario and promised
increased sharing of intelligence with the Philippines, heightened surveillance
of disputed waters, and the deployment of an early warning radar system off the
Philippine littoral to detect intrusions. In June and July, the US held routine
naval drills separately with the Philippines and Vietnam. The US Senate passed
a resolution deploring China for its "use of force" in late June, prompting
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman to call for nations "without a direct stake"
in the South China Sea disputes to refrain from interfering.
On the eve of the inaugural US-China Consultations on Asia-Pacific Affairs,
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said that some countries were
"playing with fire" by getting close to the US and reiterated that the South
China Sea disputes should be settled only by claimant states. "While some
American friends may want the United States to help in this matter ... more
often than not such gestures will only make things more complicated," Cui
At the Asia-Pacific consultations held on June 25 in Honolulu, Cui and
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell
began by explaining their respective government's policies toward the
Asia-Pacific region and then devoted a substantial portion of the afternoon to
discussions about the South China Sea. In a prepared statement to the press,
Campbell described the talks as "open, frank and constructive" and noted that
they had been conducted with the goal of obtaining a better understanding of
each other's intentions, policies, and actions toward the Asia-Pacific region.
In addition to the South China Sea, the agenda included North Korea, Burma, and
upcoming meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum, APEC, Pacific Island Forum, and
East Asia Summit. Campbell emphasized to Cui that the Obama administration does
not view the South China Sea as an arena of US-China competition. He told
reporters "We want tensions to subside," and that he had underscored the
strategic principles that guide the US approach to the South China Sea. "We
have a strong interest in the maintenance of peace and stability. And we are
seeking a dialogue among all the key players."
During the mid-July visit by Admiral Mullen to China, the South China Sea
proved to be the most contentious issue when Mullen and counterpart Gen. Chen
Bingde met with reporters. Chen warned that "irrelevant countries" should
refrain from intervening in the territorial issue and the joint exploitation of
resources. Mullen countered that the US had a fundamental interest in freedom
of navigation and would continue to maintain a presence in the South China Sea.
In response, Chen insisted that freedom of navigation had never been a problem
in the region and suggested that this issue has been raised as a pretext to
criticize China. Chen also objected to the joint exercises the US held with
Vietnam and the Philippines, hinting that they signal a US intention to
interfere in South China Sea disputes and calling their timing "inappropriate".
When Mullen replied that the exercises were small in scale and scheduled long
before recent tensions, Chen retorted that it would have been easy to
The agreement between ASEAN and China on implementing guidelines for the 2002
Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea just prior to the
convening of the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, Indonesia set a
positive tone for the meeting. Nevertheless, the US and China sparred over the
South China Sea again, although they avoided a sharp confrontation such as took
place at the 2010 ARF meeting in Hanoi. In a statement clearly targeting China,
Secretary of State Clinton opposed the "threat or use of force" by any claimant
"to advance its claims or interfere with legitimate economic activity."
She also expressed concern "that recent incidents in the South China Sea
threaten the peace and stability on which the remarkable progress of the
Asia-Pacific region has been built." "These incidents endanger the safety of
life at sea, escalate tensions, undermine freedom of navigation, and pose risks
to lawful, unimpeded commerce and economic development," Clinton asserted.
Reiterating statements made at the 2010 ARF gathering, she told the assembled
foreign ministers that the US calls on "all parties to clarify their claims in
the South China Sea in terms consistent with customary international law,"
adding that claims to maritime space "should be derived solely from legitimate
claims to land features."
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly countered that Beijing's
territorial claim is "based on historical facts" and specifically mentioned the
nine-dotted line maritime boundary that was submitted to the United Nations in
May 2009. Yang denied that China poses a danger to freedom of navigation in the
South China Sea.
In a statement that was considerably more conciliatory than last year, Yang
said that China is committed to peacefully resolving its disputes with relevant
countries concerning sovereignty over the islands and reefs and maritime
delimitation in the South China Sea, but insisted that consultations and
negotiations be discussed on the basis of both international law and respecting
In a background briefing with the press, a senior State Department official
said that the US was "taking pains to underscore that we do not want to make
the South China Sea an arena of US-Sino conflict or misunderstanding. That is
not our intent." The official praised what he termed "a determined effort on
the part of the Chinese government to be responsive and proactive to the
concerns that developed over the course of the last couple of months".
Clinton and Yang held a bilateral meeting on the margins of the ARF in which
they discussed the South China Sea as well as North Korea. In an effort to
demonstrate to the region that the US and China can work together in pursuit of
peace, stability, and prosperity in the region, they announced several areas of
practical cooperation, including:
1. A project to promote agricultural development and food security in
2. Enhanced cooperation on urban search and rescue.
3. Expanded cooperation with regional partners to strengthen regional capacity
building efforts in disaster response and relief.
After Bali, Secretary Clinton stopped in Hong Kong, where she met Hong Kong
Chief Executive Donald Tsang and delivered a speech to the American Chamber of
Commerce that emphasized the importance of the US to Asia's economy and
security. Then she traveled to Shenzhen for a four-hour meeting with Chinese
State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
In those talks, Clinton reviewed developments in the bilateral relationship
over the past year and underscored the significance of the interactions and
exchanges planned in the coming six to eight months. According to a background
briefing provided by a US official after the discussions, "the overall theme
was that we needed to work harder to develop habits of cooperation in areas of
common pursuit". US agenda items included maritime security and the South China
Sea; North Korea and the need to avert further provocations; Iran and the P-5+1
process; and the need to enhance bilateral dialogue on issues associated with
Dai Bingguo raised concerns about US arms sales to Taiwan and expressed
displeasure about President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama. China's
internal politics as well as the debate in Washington over raising the
government debt limit were also among the discussion topics.
Third Strategic and Economic Dialogue
On May 9-10, the third annual Strategic and Economic (S&ED) convened in
Washington, DC. Secretary Clinton and State Councilor Dai Bingguo co-chaired
the strategic track, while
Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner co-chaired the economic track with his
counterpart Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Sixteen agency heads joined the US
delegation for the dialogue, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke,
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and Securities and
Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro. The Chinese delegation included
representation from 20 agencies, eight of which were at the agency head level,
including Finance Minister Xie Xuren, Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan,
Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang, and Commerce Minister Chen Deming.
In the run-up to the meeting, at May 5 press briefing, Assistant Secretary of
State Campbell and the Department of the Treasury's Senior Coordinator and
Executive Secretary for China and the S&ED, David Loevinger, highlighted a
number of areas the US hoped to address during the talks. On the economic side,
these included discussing the undervaluation of China's currency, enhancing IPR
protection, delinking government procurement from innovation policies, and
making it "easier" for foreigners to make portfolio investments in China.