July 22, 2014 7:00 pm JST

A new kind of 'great power relationship'? No thanks, Obama subtly tells China

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- While China traditionally attaches great importance to the concept of "saving face," a high-ranking member of its government recently seemed to make his U.S. counterpart lose face before a global audience.

     The occasion was the closing ceremony of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held July 9-10 in Beijing. Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi met the press with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. During his remarks, Yang said China will continue to "steadfastly protect its territorial and maritime rights" in the South and East China seas. During the bilateral talks, he added, "China urged the U.S. side to adopt an objective and impartial stance and abide by its promise not to take sides."

     Kerry looked distressed upon hearing this, according to a report by The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. The secretary, after all, had made a point of avoiding outright criticisms of China when he spoke before Yang.

     Kerry did refer to the thorny issue of Internet security but stressed the fruits of the dialogue, such as an agreement to step up cooperation in environmental protection. He did not dwell on China's maritime disputes.

     So why was Yang so direct? There are a number of possible reasons.

     One is that, during the two-day meeting, the U.S. and China locked horns over the maritime issues and failed to work out their differences. Kerry voiced concerns about Beijing's actions and stressed that Washington would not accept changes to the status quo by force, according to U.S. officials. Kerry reportedly reminded China that the Japan-U.S. security treaty covers the Senkaku Islands -- islets in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.  

     Yang perhaps used the news conference to express Beijing's dissatisfaction with the talks. Yet China must have anticipated the American position, so there ought to be a bigger reason for Yang's bluntness. Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a clue July 9. 

Between the lines

At the outset of the dialogue, Xi delivered a 15-minute speech in which he urged the U.S. to reinforce its ties with China and referred to a "new type of great power relationship" nearly 10 times. China defines that new relationship as mutual recognition of and respect for the two countries' core interests. Xi has repeatedly called for such relations since last year.

     Basically, Xi wants the U.S. and China to engage in give and take while respecting each other's turf. For example, China would cooperate with Washington's Middle East policy and fight against terrorism in return for a recognition of Chinese interests in places like the Senkakus and the South China Sea.  

     However, in a statement on the dialogue issued July 9, U.S. President Barack Obama appeared to brush that idea aside. "We are committed to the shared goal of developing over a time a 'new model' of relations with China defined by increased practical cooperation and constructive management of differences," Obama said.

     Though the statement was vague, the president seemed to be saying the U.S. would not accept Xi's vision. The words "great power relationship" and similar language were noticeably absent. This implies that Washington will not treat U.S.-China ties as special, nor go along with Bejing's call for a division of turf.

     For a while, last fall, the Obama administration seemed more open to the Chinese proposal. In speeches and at news conferences, top White House officials did use similar wording to Xi's. Then, in November, China announced a new air defense identification zone over the East China Sea. A high-ranking U.S. government official said Beijing made that move because it sensed the White House was taking a conciliatory approach. 

     Obama's July 9 statement was worded to clarify that the U.S. has no intention of trading its sphere of influence in Asia with China, the official said.

     Judging from Yang's comments, the Chinese leadership received the message.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.