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Crunch Time Diplomacy
Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit paves the way for improved China-U.S. coordination
By An Gang | NO. 10 MARCH 10, 2016

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid an official visit to Washington, D.C. on February 23-25 at the invitation of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, reporters and foreign policy analysts were watching with anticipation. What would the result of the meetings be, their third in just one month? What tone would the meeting take, given the hotly debated disputes between the countries over North Korea's nuclear program and tensions related to the South China Sea?

During his stay, Wang met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House and held talks with his counterpart, Secretary Kerry, and Assistant to the U.S. President for National Security Affairs Susan Rice. Other senior statesmen whom Wang met with included Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce and Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass, as well as other veteran diplomats.

While in the nation's capital, Wang also delivered a speech, entitled The Developing China and China's Diplomacy, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the well-known U.S. think tank on foreign relations and strategy, on February 25.

The tightly scheduled trip was announced just one day in advance, which showed the urgency of the need for dialogue. China had two main issues to discuss with the United States: the tensions caused by the latest nuclear test and satellite launch in North Korea; and the continued disputes in the South China Sea.

Nuclear tests 

At the beginning of 2016, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) took two bold steps in developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, both of which are banned by the UN via Security Council resolutions. The DPRK's first hydrogen bomb test on January 6 and satellite launch with ballistic missile technology on February 7 have resulted in a new round of tensions in the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK, or North Korea, has pledged to continue its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in order "to build a deterrent force against the United States as early as possible."

In response to the DPRK's actions, the United States has asked the UN Security Council to approve a new round of comprehensive sanctions over the country. The United States has announced to work together with the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea, and Japan to impose unilateral sanctions on the DPRK.

The United States and ROK also threatened to launch a preemptive strike against the DPRK. In response, North Korea announced a tit-for-tat military strike strategy. Furthermore, the United States persuaded South Korea to advance the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on its territory. The two sides have since initiated talks on the matter.

The renewed tensions in the Korean Peninsula have put China in a dilemma. During the Munich Security Conference held in Germany on February 12, Foreign Minister Wang stated three principles China upholds in dealing with the issue. First, under no circumstances can the Korean Peninsula be nuclearized, whether by the DPRK or the ROK, whether it is self-produced, introduced or deployed. Second, there is no military solution to the issue. War or turbulence on the peninsula is not acceptable for China. Third, China's legitimate national security interests must be effectively maintained and safeguarded.

During his meeting with Secretary Kerry on February 23, Wang pointed out that in order to safeguard a nuclear non-proliferation system, China will neither accept North Korea's nuclear program and ballistic missile plan, nor admit its nuclear status. He also stressed that tougher UN Security Council sanctions could not fundamentally solve the issue - all parties need to go back to the negotiating table.

The UN Security Council on March 2 unanimously approved the toughest sanctions in two decades against North Korea in response to its recent attempts to develop nuclear bombs. But the sanctions will not affect people's basic needs in the DPRK, offering hopes for future negotiations.

Visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on February 23 (CFP)

Areas of dispute 

During his stay in Washington, Wang repeatedly expressed that China opposes the United States' intention to deploy the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. In talks with his U.S. counterpart, Wang pointed out that the THAAD's radar detection will go deep into China's territory if it is deployed in the ROK, and China's legitimate national security interests would be affected and even threatened by the missile defense system. Kerry responded that the United States is not hungry or anxious or looking for an opportunity to be able to deploy the THAAD. That decision has not yet been made.

Kerry emphasized that "the way to not only prevent the THAAD from being deployed but also to see America be in a position to have less troops on the peninsula - maybe, one day - is by resolving the issue of the nuclear program in the DPRK and ultimately making peace on the peninsula."

The deployment of the THAAD missile defense system concerns the security interests of China, Russia, the United States and South Korea. Therefore, all parties should hold sufficient talks on the matter before it is implemented. If the United States and South Korea decide to go down this road, the strategic security situation in Northeast Asia will be changed drastically, which would be detrimental to Sino-U.S. relations. Both sides should spare no effort to prevent this from happening.

On the South China Sea issue, China and the United States exchanged their respective views during Wang's visit. In response to the accusation of China militarizing islands in the South China Sea, Wang said that China has the right to safeguard its territories and legitimate maritime interests there.

Referring to the Chinese president's commitments made on this issue during his official state visit last fall, Kerry said "we want President Xi Jinping's statement when he came to Washington that there would be no militarization in the islands to be upheld by everybody." America's top diplomat also reiterated the fact that the United States hopes to resolve the issue through dialogue.

Wang stressed that China has the ability and confidence to safeguard the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea with Southeast Asian countries in line with international laws. And he expressed that China hopes the United States would stop provocations such as close-up reconnaissance missions into China's territorial islands in the South China Sea. In the end, both sides agreed to continue communications on maritime security issues in order to prevent any misunderstanding.

Improving ties 

Another major task of Wang's trip was to make preparations for the upcoming high-level meetings between the two countries during the fourth Nuclear Security Summit to be held in Washington D.C. in late March. During their meeting, Obama spoke positively of bilateral cooperation in addressing climate change and solving relevant regional hotspot issues. He said that U.S.-China relations are very important and that he is looking forward to President Xi's attendance at the fourth Nuclear Security Summit.

Addressing those with a pessimistic view of China-U.S. relations, Wang said in his speech at CSIS that favorable relations between China and the United States benefit not only the two peoples but also the world at large.

"The common interests of the two countries far outweigh their differences. Both sides should resolve strategic doubts, strengthen strategic cooperation and establish strategic mutual trust through in-depth strategic communication," Wang said. "The so-called speculation that China will be the main rival of, or even replace the United States, is a false proposition. For a long time into the future, China will continue to focus on its own development, with no intention to ever challenge any other countries."

Overall, Wang's three-day diplomatic trip helped China and the United States achieve important progress on some thorny issues through coordination and consultation, underscoring the fact that the future of China-U.S. relations is positive.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review  and a researcher at the Pangoal Institution  

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell 

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