China, US tensions over South China Sea persist despite dialogue

Just on the second day after the 8th China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and the 7th China-US High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, Chinese and Russian warships appeared in the vicinity of the Diaoyu Islands, which has led to speculations among different parties.

Because it was unclear if it was a joint patrol, or the warships happened to be there together by accident, it could not be considered as a counter measure to Japanese or US actions on South China Sea.

China and the US have gained significant achievements in the economic field in this year’s S&ED, such as the agreements on renminbi and trade, compared with the results in the strategic field.

This is due to the essence of the two different fields. Both sides talked about the issues of common concern in the dialogue areas, such as the South China Sea dispute and North Korea’s nuclear issue, which could not be solved in one meeting.

Little progress was made on the South China Sea dispute, and the key reason is that the South China Sea issue is complex and sensitive. The complexity is due to a host of issues, such as military, law and law enforcement.

Meanwhile, the sensitivity also means that the issue could not be solved at a ministry-level dialogue, and significant progress can be expected when the leaders of both countries talk about the issue.

The S&ED was held just before an impending ruling by an international arbitration initiated by the Philippines, which is also an important reason for both sides to not achieve any progress on the South China Sea.

Some American participants said that both sides have made some progress. Though Chinese leaders reiterated the stance on South China Sea, it still helped allay American doubts.

But generally, both sides still have deep suspicions on the issue, and concrete achievements can only be made through dialogue between leaders of the two sides.

Some said that when S&ED was held, the military confrontation in the South China Sea did not abate, but escalated.

But it is hard to judge if the confrontation escalated or not. The confrontation has no direct connection to the few achievements made at the S&ED.

China and the US have cooperation in some fields and they also have contradictions. The co-existence of conflict and cooperation just shows the complex relationship between China and the US. Having conflicts does not mean they could not cooperate, and the cooperation also does not mean no conflict exists in bilateral ties.

The US will hold its presidential election, and the South China Sea will be raised as a hot topic. It also depends on how both sides handle the issue, as proper handling would help cool down the issue.

But in any case, the South China Sea issue would not change due to the US election, because the two have no causal link.

The author is the director of the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR).

(Opinions expressed in the article don't represent those of the Sino-US.com.)


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