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Maintaining Engagement and Cooperation for Improved Sino-US Relations

2019-04-26 17:24:21       source:NISCSS

Wu Shicun, President of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, President of the Advisory Board of the Institute for China-American Studies

(Washington, D.C., April 25, 2019)

Good morning. It gives me great pleasure to join the Carter Center and the China Institute of the University of Alberta in holding this seminar on the theme of "Diagnosing Risks and Exploring Cooperation". On behalf of the advisory board of the Institute for China-American Studies, I would like to extend my sincere welcome to all of you.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-US diplomatic relations. Taking this opportunity, I would like to make some brief comments on the state of current Sino-US relations as well as on the South China Sea.

I. New Developments in Sino-US Relations

Over the past month or so, positive signals from the Sino-US trade negotiations have emerged, indicating that the two sides have reached a basic consensus on a series of issues and are expecting to sign a final agreement. The cloud of the "trade war" hanging over the two countries is finally beginning to dissipate, and economic cooperation, the backbone of Sino-US relations, has withstood the test.

As China and the United States begin dragging themselves out of the quagmire of trade frictions, the deteriorating bilateral relations are being put under a certain level of control, and new signs of detente and progress are emerging.

However, the detente remains shaky, as the destructive bilateral security competition continues to prevail. At present, despite the substantial progress in Sino-US trade negotiations, unsolved issues remain and the timeframe for the agreement-signing is still undecided. Some analysts believe that the new trade agreement, even if signed, still will not be able to solve once and for all the structural contradictions between the two countries in the economic field, nor will it prevent heightened economic competition between the two countries, especially in the high-tech field.

 Since Trump took office, the US government and military have issued three policy reports in succession, explicitly naming China as the main strategic competitor. Senior American officials also publicly called China a "major threat" to US national security. China being the main strategic competitor has become a deep-rooted conception within the U.S. strategic community, which will be hard to shake-off.

Influenced by such a negative perception, the United States has intensified its so called "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea, proposed to review the "Mutual Defense Treaty" with the Philippines to include the disputed waters in the South China Sea into the scope of its application, strengthened defense cooperation with other claimants in the South China Sea, and tried to interfere with the "COC" consultations. The military contest between China and the United States in the South China Sea will become a "seesaw battle", and the possibility of maritime skirmishes or local maritime crises still exists.

The promulgation of the "Taiwan Travel Act" and the "Taiwan Assurance Act", the successive visits to Taiwan by senior American officials, the clamor for US-Taiwan joint military exercises, frequent passage of US warships through the Taiwan Strait, and the increase in US arms sales to Taiwan all indicate that the US is determined to step on the "red line" of the Taiwan issue. Trump's "aggressive" strategy on the Taiwan issue will greatly increase the possibility of crisis in Sino-US relations.

In general, these new trends in the current Sino-US relationship feature both a temporary detente in economic competition and a continued intensification of strategic security rivalry.

II. Current and future development of the South China Sea Issue

Overall, the current atmosphere of the South China Sea indicates a general state of cooling down and stabilization, with developments seen on two contrasting fronts. On the one hand, maritime cooperation in low-sensitive areas between China and other littoral states in the South China Sea has been continuously advancing with new progress, and it has also been seen in security cooperation. A timetable and a road map have been established for the consultations on the "Code of Conduct for the South China Sea" (hereinafter referred to as the "COC"). These developments have all contributed to a stabilization of China-claimant state and China-ASEAN relations with regard to the South China Sea. On the other hand, the geopolitical competition in the South China Sea characterized by the military rivalry between China and the United States is intensifying, which is a factor affecting the stability of the South China Sea.

In the coming period, military provocations from the United States and its allies against China in the South China Sea is expected to intensify. Differences and contradictions between relevant parties inside and outside the region with regard to the COC text consultations will gradually surface. Influenced by the South China Sea arbitration and the discord sown by outsiders, individual claimant countries may take dangerous unilateral actions. This will lead to potential new frictions and conflict among the South China Sea disputants, and South China Sea maritime cooperation will once again become an uphill journey.

As a defender of peace and stability in the South China Sea, China, while firmly safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, will actively promote the overall development of the South China Sea as a harmonious and stable region.

To maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, China and the United States must meet each other halfway. It is suggested that if the United States halts its provocative military actions against China in the South China Sea, then China will keep its military deployments in the region within reasonable limits and make their self-defensive nature more transparent. At the same time, China should also speed up the upgrading of the civilian service capacities of the islands and reefs and provide more public goods to the international community.

China should work with the United States to press ahead with the formulation of maritime crisis response measures and a standardized set of operating procedures as per the "The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea". Furthermore, China and the US should discuss the establishment of a Sino-US South China Sea working group or a military-to-military hotline mechanism to prevent potential conflicts, reduce military confrontation and refrain from jeopardizing the peace and stability of the South China Sea.

China should, as always, stay committed to promoting the COC text consultations and seek common ground while shelving differences with other parties and meet them halfway so as to reach an early agreement based on a single draft COC negotiating text. Meanwhile, the United States will hopefully add momentum to the "COC" consultations and drop its disturbances in these waters. We also encourage China to take the "COC" consultations as an opportunity to establish a consultation and cooperation promotion mechanism in the fields of maritime search and rescue, combating armed robbery and piracy, coping with natural disasters, conservation of fishery resources, and marine scientific research and environmental protection, etc., so as to provide a reliable guarantee for the free and safe navigation in the international waterway of the South China Sea.

I come from Hainan Island, China, where on April 13 last year, President Xi Jinping announced the central government’s support for building the whole island of Hainan into a free trade pilot zone and a free trade port with Chinese characteristics-thereby releasing a positive signal for China’s continued and deepened reform and opening up. At this time, the construction of the Hainan free trade zone (port) is in full swing and is open to US enterprises for investment and opportunity-sharing through economic and trade cooperation with Chinese partners.

As president of the advisory board of the Institute for China-American Studies, I am glad to see the positive efforts and results made by ICAS in promoting exchanges and mutual trust between academic institutions from both sides as well as playing a positive role in the development of Sino-US relations. It is hoped that the two countries will continue to develop platforms for exchanges and cooperation between their think tanks in the future so as to dissolve miscalculation through communication, replace accusation with dialogue, eliminate confrontation through cooperation, and consolidate the fruits of as well as provide popular support for the stable development of Sino-US relations.

I would like to conclude my speech by thanking you all for joining us today.