19 November 2019
The love-hate relationship between China and the US is likely to continue into the foreseeable future as they both need each other's cooperation to deal with global issues. Photo: Reuters
The love-hate relationship between China and the US is likely to continue into the foreseeable future as they both need each other's cooperation to deal with global issues. Photo: Reuters

2015: A bumpy ride for Sino-US relations

It was quite a bumpy year for Sino-US relations in 2015 as competition and dispute between the two countries escalated.

Yet it appears that Beijing and Washington have reached some sort of an unspoken agreement on risk management: they wouldn’t let their conflicts spin out of control and would make sure their channel for dialogue always remains open.

In March 2015, Britain officially announced its plan to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) despite opposition from the United States, and shortly thereafter, other major western powers such as France, Germany and Italy also applied to join.

The fact that major European powers were willing to risk angering the US to join the AIIB suggests that they have already come to terms with the fact that China’s growing economic influence is unstoppable and that they are determined to ride with that tide, with or without Washington’s consent.

On June 29, financial secretaries from 57 countries gathered in Beijing to witness the conclusion of the agreement on the foundation of the AIIB.

Widely regarded as a sign of Beijing’s diplomatic triumph over Washington, the founding of the AIIB, in the meantime, also prompted the US and Japan to accelerate the process of negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP), which had already dragged on for five years since 2010, in an attempt to counter China’s growing economic influence.

In early October, leaders of 12 countries including the US, Japan, Canada and Australia gathered in the city of Atlanta to sign the founders’ agreement on the TPP.

While Beijing and Washington were competing with each other fiercely for global economic leadership, their conflicts in the disputed South China Sea in the past year also increased strains in their bilateral relations.

For years there had been conflicts over sovereignty in the South China Sea region among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, and in most cases the US had refrained from taking sides on this sensitive issue.

However, Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance on contested territory in the region and its continued act of building man-made islands in the South China Sea in recent years to extend its zone of influence had sparked grave concern in Washington, prompting the Obama administration to adopt a more proactive approach to the issue in 2015.

In April the Pentagon conducted several surveillance flights over the South China Sea to make clear that the US did not recognize China’s territorial claims in the region.

Then in late October, the US Navy carried out what it said was a routine patrol in the disputed waters, during which one of its guided missile destroyers, the USS Lassen, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, two of the man-made islands built by China, sparking a strong diplomatic protest from Beijing.

Apart from naval patrols and flights, Washington also flexed its diplomatic muscles and teamed up with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which also have rival territorial claims in the region in order to contain China.

In August, at the annual ASEAN ministerial conference held in Kuala Lumpur, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Beijing to stop any provocative act that might fuel regional tension. Then during the ASEAN leaders’ summit in October, President Obama again appealed to China to stop building man-made islands in the South China Sea.

His urge was echoed by leaders of the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Sino-US relations saw another deterioration in mid-December after the US government announced a US$1.83 billion arms sale to Taiwan, including the sale of two Perry-class frigates, a dozen of LVPT 7 assault amphibious vehicles and more than a hundred shoulder-fired “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles.

The announcement was followed by a formal diplomatic protest by Beijing, although at a lower level than in previous such instances.

It is believed that both Beijing and Washington wanted to downplay this arms sale in order not to ruin their relations which had improved considerably after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November.

Yet China-US relations in 2015 were not entirely dominated by tension and rivalry. In late September President Xi Jinping paid his first ever official state visit to the US, and was given a warm welcome by President Obama.

However, apart from closing a deal with Boeing to buy a whopping 300 commercial airliners for US$38 billion and reaching an agreement with President Obama over curbing cyber-espionage, Xi’s visit didn’t achieve much tangible results.

As the US is anticipating its presidential election in November this year, it is generally expected that China’s human rights record, US-China trade gap, China’s spying activities against the US and the so-called “China threat” theory will again be on top of the campaign agenda of the Republican and Democratic candidates.

In other words, the year 2016 may see another bumpy ride for Sino-US relations.

However, whatever their conflicts may be the two countries are likely to remain on speaking terms because they just need each other’s cooperation to deal with both bilateral and global issues.

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