Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.07.18

Two Dialogues in Beijing and Canberra

JBpress on July 11, 2014

At the opening ceremony of the 6th round of the S&ED (the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue) on July 9, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly stated that "China-U.S. confrontation, to the two countries and the world, would definitely be a disaster." Yes, he is right and we cannot agree more. But the real question now is how we can avoid such confrontation?

Honestly, the silent majority of Japanese do not know much about the S&ED. Probably, neither do many ordinary Americans. It is a high-level dialogue for the U.S. and China to discuss a wide range of bilateral, regional and global political, strategic, security and economic issues. Despite its ostentatious name, the meetings have hardly born fruit so far.

Recently, the Chinese side seems to be more interested in words and concepts than substance. At the opening ceremony President Xi reiterated the importance of building a "new model of major country relations." Later in a press conference, Chinese high level participants in the S&ED repeatedly referred to this notoriously ambiguous concept with special emphasis.

President Xi went on to say that China and the United States "should mutually respect and treat each other equally, and respect the other's sovereignty and territorial integrity and respect each other's choice on the path of development" and that "we should avoid enforcing one's opinion and model on the other." I beg your pardon? Do you treat Vietnam and the Philippines equally?

Great Chinese leaders' remarks often require information on connotation, if not outright interpretation. When they say they "should mutually respect and treat each other equally," that means America neither respects China nor treats her as an equal. When they talk about "sovereignty" or "choice," they are not happy with what the West does. In a nutshell, China is not ready to make a serious deal with the United States.

The response from Secretary of State John Kerry was intriguing. He said in a press conference that, "I heard many times President Xi Jinping just now talk about a great country relationship, a new model. I would say to you that a new model is not defined in words. It is defined in actions. The new model will be defined by the choices that we can make together."

While denying to seek to contain China, Kerry went on to say that a U.S.-China rivalry is "not inevitable but is a choice... that's why we are committed to a new model of relations, of great country relationship, a mutually beneficial relationship in which we cooperate in areas of common interest and constructively manage the differences."

All these mean that there will be no agreement in a foreseeable future on even the concept of the "new type of major country relations." It's too bad, but this is the undeniable reality between the United States and China as witnessed in Beijing on July 9. On the same day in Canberra, however, things seemed to be much more promising and substantive.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Australia and, together with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, issued a joint statement entitled "Special Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century." Unlike in Beijing, nobody is being asked to define the special strategic partnership for the simple reason that the two premiers just got the business done, period.

The most striking part of the joint statement is the following: "The two leaders decided to commence negotiations with a view to making an agreement that would reciprocally improve administrative, policy and legal procedures to facilitate joint operations and exercises." Few people will notice the significance of the sentence but this is extremely important.

Read it carefully. The sentence could mean that there may be a new security related bilateral agreement between Japan and Australia, which would remove various obstacles for the two countries' armed forces to conduct joint military operations or exercises. This, although still at a primitive stage, could dramatically enhance security cooperation between the two nations.

On July 8, Prime Minister Abe delivered a speech at the Australian Parliament. He said, "When we Japanese started out again after the Second World War, we thought long and hard over what had happened in the past, and came to make a vow for peace with their whole hearts. We Japanese have followed that path until the present day. We will never let the horrors of the past century's history repeat themselves."

"This vow that Japan made after the war is still fully alive today. It will never change going forward. There is no question at all about this point. I stand here in the Australian legislative chamber to state this vow to you solemnly and proudly." Then he quoted the words of former Prime Minister R.G. Menzies who restarted Australia-Japan ties after World War II. "Hostility to Japan must go. It is better to hope than always to remember." For Japan, Australia is a very special nation.