15:07 | 22/05/2015 Cooperation
The US-Chinese relationship has suffered from recent disputes in the East Sea. With China conducting activities intended to change the status of islands in the East Sea, Washington has expressed a tough attitude on the issue and defined red lines for China.
Since Washington embarked on a policy of rebalancing its political and military relations with Asia, the Chinese-US relationship has grown more brittle. Though both sides say their bilateral ties remain stable, maintaining the stability has not been easy.
Challenges for regional security
During a recent two-day visit to China, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the US’s determination to protect its allies in Asia and defined red lines in the waters where Beijing claims sovereignty.
At a meeting with senior Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping, State Councilor Yang Jeichi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Kerry affirmed the US’s “iron” determination to safeguard the interests of the US and its allies in the East Sea.
Kerry called on Beijing to take action to ease tension in the East Sea and participate in dialogues with ASEAN members. Instead of seeking a diplomatic solution and agreeing on a Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China, the Chinese Foreign Minister declared that China would safeguard its sovereignty.
Military clashes in the East Sea: Possible?
The US’s growing concern stems from increasing tension in the region. Over the past year, the Philippines, a US ally, has repeatedly criticized China’s maritime incursions and asked the US to take a tougher stance on the issue.
This has created an opportunity for the US to expand its influence in the region. Instability in the East Sea, a key maritime route, will directly affect several countries, including the US, making the East Sea a top concern of US policy in Asia.
In fact, the US State Department has said that resolving disputes in the East Sea is its top diplomatic priority. The US assumes that China’s reclamation and militarization activities in the East Sea are an overture to declaring an “air identification zone” similar to the one China declared in the East China Sea in 2013.
The US has warned that China’s recent actions in the East Sea have crossed the line of what is acceptable.
The East Sea has become a front-burner issue in the US. Officials in charge of East Asia- Asia Pacific affairs in the US State and Defense Departments have conducted several hearings on the issue before the Senate’s Foreign External Relations Committee.
At these hearings, a number of US Senators urged the Obama administration to react more forcefully to China’s activities in East Asian waters. Concerned with ensuring freedom of navigation, the US military convened a meeting to discuss the use of navy ships and aircraft to within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up and claimed by China.
For several years, the US has sent a fleet of warships to the East Sea once a year. In addition to increasing joint patrols with its allies, visits by US warships to the region have challenged China’s attempts to expand its sovereignty in the East Sea.
Maritime conflicts between the US and China are growing more likely as the US pivots toward Asia- Pacific.
Hard to erase differences
The US and China also have differences related to trade, human rights and cyber security, despite cooperation on climate change, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Iran’s nuclear program.
At a meeting with the US Secretary of State, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his hope of improving Sino-US ties. But that prospects will depend on how they address the current differences.