The author has recently participated in many academic seminars. When discussing bilateral issues between China and other countries, I generally cannot help but talk about the US factor. But sometimes the US factor becomes the theme of the conference. It would appear as if (the recommendation to) eliminate the US factor is a panacea for solving bilateral issues. In fact, generalizing the American factor or overestimating the American factor is not conducive to our handling of bilateral issues.
We have established partnerships at different levels with more than 100 countries and international organizations around the world, and it is inevitable that we have bilateral problems of some kind or another with some countries. These bilateral issues fall into four categories: territorial or maritime rights disputes, trade frictions, historical issues and ideological issues such as human rights.
These four categories of bilateral problems do not exhaust the whole of our relations with other countries, but are only a part of bilateral relations. Most of them are formed over a long period of time, such as disputes over territorial or maritime rights and interests and historical issues; some are structural problems, such as trade frictions; and some are cognitive gaps, such as human rights issues. These issues are difficult to solve completely in a short time, and we need strategic patience to solve them more through bilateral channels than by associating third-party factors, such as the U.S. factor.
Our neighbor, Vietnam, once had a land border territorial dispute with us, but through many rounds of friendly negotiation, the two sides were able to sign the Sino-Vietnamese Land Boundary Treaty on December 30, 1999, which resolved the dispute. Although there is still a sovereignty dispute between China and Vietnam over islands and reefs in the South China Sea, these disputes are manageable. In recent years, the United States has continuously wooed Vietnam to confront China on the South China Sea issue through the so-called free navigation plan, defense cooperation, and financial assistance. However, Sino-Vietnamese relations have never deviated from the normal track. Not only that, trade between China and Vietnam has increased rather than decreased during the pandemic. According to the statistics of Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade, by the end of November, the two-way trade volume between China and Vietnam reached 117.09 billion U.S. dollars, of which Vietnam’s exports to China amounted to 43.145 billion U.S. dollars, up 16% year-on-year; Vietnam’s imports from China amounted to 73.945 billion U.S. dollars, up 7.9% year-on-year.
Ironically, in October and November, US Secretary of State Pompeo and President’s National Security Affairs Assistant O’Brien visited Vietnam one after another, trying to turn Vietnam against China, but failed. On December 16, the US Treasury Department listed Vietnam as a currency manipulator, trying to continue to force Vietnam to choose sides between China and the United States. Obviously, Vietnam is unlikely to “cut ties” with China, with which, after all, it has broader interests.
The relationship between China and Vietnam is a microcosm of the relationship between China and Southeast Asia. As a gateway between Asia and Oceania, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Southeast Asia has a prominent geographical position that is significant geo-politically. Especially in the backdrop of the Sino-American game that is hotting up, Southeast Asia’s role is very important. For Southeast Asia, the US factor is just a card to counter China’s rising influence, but in no way does it determine the diplomatic thrust of Southeast Asia’s diplomacy.
The year 2020 is an important year for China’s relations with Southeast Asia. 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of China’s diplomatic relations with Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia, respectively, as well as the 45th anniversary of China’s diplomatic relations with Thailand and the Philippines, respectively, and the 30th anniversary of China’s diplomatic relations with Singapore. Due to the epidemic, some major offline celebrations had to be cancelled, but online celebrations were held with great enthusiasm. During the epidemic, investment and trade between China and Southeast Asia rose in both directions, and the two sides created a new model of “green channel” and “fast track”, which became a model of regional health cooperation. At the same time, we note that some senior U.S. officials have continued to visit Southeast Asia to draw these Southeast Asian countries into “decoupling” from and “disconnecting” with China, but with little success.
It is undeniable that there are some bilateral problems between China and some Southeast Asian countries, but these countries pursue a strategy of balancing the powers and it is in their own national interests not to choose sides. When dealing with these Southeast Asian countries, China adheres to the concept of seeking common ground while reserving differences in its dealings with these countries, focusing on cooperation, so as to squeeze out the US’s operating space for driving a wedge between China and these countries to the greatest extent possible, and reduce the influence of the US factor.
We also have border territorial disputes with India. Since the Doklam incident in China and India in 2017, India and the United States have each taken the steps they felt they needed and set up a 2+2 dialogue mechanism. However, India cannot completely fall to the United States, because non-alignment is an important principle of its diplomacy, and relations with Russia are a part of its diplomatic tradition. In response to the dispute, the leaders of China and India have repeatedly emphasized the need to effectively manage and handle differences, and seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the Sino-Indian border issue. The establishment of a legal, efficient, and reliable China-India border dispute settlement mechanism is an important guarantee for realizing the vision of the leaders of China and India. The establishment of this mechanism depends on the joint efforts of China and India, not the US factor.
In short, the US factor is a constant in China’s bilateral relations with other countries, but in most cases, it is not a key variable. This requires us to focus more on each other’s core concerns when dealing with bilateral relations with other countries, and truly build a community of shared future for mankind in which we are all linked together inextricably.
(The author is a researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific and Global Strategies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Director of the Southeast Asian Studies Center)