South China Sea > Opinion
Monday, June 6, 2016, 10:40

A defining moment for China-US ties

By Cui Tiankai

The China-US relationship today is probably at another defining moment. How we direct it now will have far-reaching consequences. Both countries have a big stake in the choices we are going to make. Whether or not we will be able to make the right choices depends on a few key factors.

First, it depends on our vision of the world today.

On the positive side, all major powers are now members of key international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. We are also working together in new global governance mechanisms such as the G20. This means that the major powers are committed to the maintenance and better functioning of the existing international order. As long as there is sufficient political will, it will be possible for us to seize this historic opportunity and build a new partnership for long-term stability and prosperity in the world.

Second, our ability to make the right choices will depend on our perceptions of each other.

For China, the top priority is to accomplish economic, social and political transformation for the modernization of the country. Its most important tasks are domestic, and its foreign policy is aimed, first and foremost, at preserving a peaceful external environment. Naturally, as China develops and integrates more deeply with the rest of the world, it will have more interests to attend to beyond its borders and greater international responsibilities to fulfill.

In doing so, China has to deal with the United States and develop a positive and stable relationship with it. Of course, when US policies hurt China's interests, we will do what we can to safeguard and protect ourselves and ask the United States to change its position. But this is entirely different from challenging the US' global position and trying to establish China's own dominance in the world.

A telling example is the issue of the South China Sea. The real issue is there is disputes over territorial and maritime jurisdiction. China is doing nothing more than maintaining and defending its long-standing and legitimate position. But this has been grossly misperceived as a strategic move by China to challenge US dominance. The US' responses to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative are similar examples of misperceived intentions.

Some people seem to be concerned about a so-called Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine. They see China's call for Asians to take more responsibility for Asian affairs as an attempt to drive the US out of Asia, whereas China is simply saying that no one else can solve Asian problems if we Asians fail to shoulder our own responsibilities. The fact is that China consistently stands for open and inclusive regional cooperation.

But there is an alarming development toward exclusion here. Today, whatever China does, even within its own territory, some people in the US always question China's intentions and challenge China's position. So the reality is not that China is trying to drive anyone out of the Asia-Pacific, but that there are attempts to deny China's legitimate interests in its own region.

Third, whether or not we can manage differences while enhancing cooperation depends on our will and skill. Thus, it is encouraging to note that China-US cooperation is expanding and deepening.

There have been demands on China to abide by international rules, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But the people making these demands are denying China's rights under the Convention. Besides that, they often forget to mention that the scope of the Convention does not cover sovereignty and territorial issues, as made clear in the Convention itself.

The concept of freedom of navigation is frequently used to justify the actions by the US military in the South China Sea. But the US' freedom of navigation operations were originally designed as a counter-measure against the freedom of navigation defined by the Convention, as the US believed that the Convention would restrict the freedom of movement of its navy around the world.

The world has changed. We need a new vision for our relationship based on recognition of the new realities. China and the US should form a new partnership to work together on today's global challenges. This will help both countries to better accomplish their domestic goals and fulfill their international roles.

The author is Chinese ambassador to the US. The article is an excerpt of his speech delivered at the Brookings US-China Leadership Forum last month.


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