Kerry Eyes US-China Partnership Despite Tensions

By Matthew Lee 14 August 2014

HONOLULU — Improving US cooperation with China is critical to maintaining stability and security in the Asia-Pacific as well as combating the effects climate change, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday.

Wrapping up an eight-day, around-the-world diplomatic trip and his sixth visit to Asia as America’s top diplomat, Kerry outlined renewed priorities for much of the Obama administration’s much-touted “pivot to Asia” during its final two-and-a-half years, including a focus on strengthening US-Chinese partnership in areas of agreement and bridging gaps in areas of contention.

“One thing I know will contribute to maintaining regional peace and stability is a constructive relationship between the United States and China,” Kerry said in an address to the East-West Center think tank in Honolulu. “The United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, prosperous and stable China: one that plays a responsible role in Asia and the world and supports rules and norms on economic and security issues.”

“We are committed to avoiding the trap of strategic rivalry and intent on forging a relationship in which we broaden our cooperation on common interests and constructively manage our differences and disagreements,” he said.

Kerry arrived in Hawaii after stops in Afghanistan, Burma, Australia and the Solomon Islands, during which tensions between China and its smaller neighbors over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea were a major subject of discussion. At a Southeast Asia regional security forum in Burma over the weekend, Kerry formally unveiled a US proposal for a voluntary freeze on provocative actions by all claimants, including the Chinese.

The United States says that it has no position on the competing claims but does regard stability in the South China Sea as a national security issue, given the region’s role as one of the world’s busiest maritime shipping zones.

“We do care about how those questions are resolved, we care about behavior,” Kerry said. “We firmly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force to assert a territorial or maritime claim by anyone. And we firmly oppose any suggestion that freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea and airspace are privileges granted by big states to small ones. All claimants must work together to solve the claims through peaceful means. These principles bind all nations equally, and all nations have a responsibility to uphold them.”

While welcomed in general by the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), China took a dim view of Kerry’s proposal and suggested it would not agree.

In an apparent nod to such disagreements, Kerry said that building better ties with Beijing will not be easy or inevitable.

“Make no mistake: This constructive relationship, this ‘new model,’ is not going to happen simply by talking about it,” he said. “It’s not going to happen by engaging in slogans or pursuing spheres of influence. It will be defined by more and better cooperation on shared challenges. It will be defined by a mutual embrace of the rules, norms and institutions that have served both our nations and the region so well.”

Kerry said he was pleased at some areas of current US-China cooperation, including multination talks on Iran’s nuclear program, a shared interest in denuclearizing North Korea and promoting calm in South Sudan.

In addition, on climate change, which he regularly describes as the biggest threat facing Earth, Kerry hailed US-Chinese initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation as well as working on sustainable, clean energy options.

At the same time, he noted that the United States and China, along with other Asian nations, routinely disagree on human rights.

Kerry pointed out backsliding in rights protection and democratic principles in Burma and Thailand and repression in North Korea but said the United States would not relent in its drive to improve conditions.

“We will continue to promote human rights and democracy in Asia, without arrogance but also without apology,” he said.