US, Chinese commitment to rules-based order offers hope
Rising tensions between the US and China publicly demonstrate that the new cold war is in full swing. The two countries’ renewed contest for power and influence has put many other nations, including friends of both such as the Gulf states, in a tough position. On the one hand, the US is the main strategic partner for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in a multifaceted relationship that includes close security, trade and cultural ties. On the other, China is the GCC’s top trading partner and most important energy client, not to mention its growing political, security and cultural engagement.
The US last week hosted a high-level strategic dialogue with China in Anchorage, Alaska. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan represented the US. China was represented by Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign affairs chief, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Yang also served as foreign minister between 2007 and 2013.
Beijing described the talks as “candid, in-depth, long-time and constructive communication on domestic and foreign policies, China-US relations and major international and regional issues of common concern.” It also expressed its belief that “the dialogue is timely and helpful and deepens mutual understanding.” From the US side, Sullivan said: “We expected to have tough and direct talks on a wide range of issues, and that’s exactly what we had.”
Beyond this diplomatic phraseology, however, the public part of the dialogue was testy and unusual for its open display of disagreement, which is usually hidden away from the media.
Blinken set the tone in his opening remarks, expressing “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion toward our allies.” He dismissed the notion that they are purely internal matters, as “each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”
Yang responded to Blinken’s brief remarks with a 15-minute, all-encompassing rebuttal that also addressed earlier American and European criticisms, especially those related to Xinjiang. According to an official Chinese report, the Chinese side pointed out that “the claim that there is genocide in China’s Xinjiang is the biggest lie of the century.” It added, however, that “the Chinese side is ready to engage in exchanges with the US side on the basis of mutual respect, and the door of Xinjiang is wide open to the world. However, China will not accept any investigation in Xinjiang based on the presumption of guilt by those who are biased and condescending, and who want to lecture China. It is hoped that the US side can respect facts, call off attacks against and the smearing of China’s Xinjiang policy, and abandon double standards on counterterrorism.” While expressing staunch opposition to US interference in Xinjiang and promising that it will “take firm actions in response,” it appeared from the Chinese delegation’s comments that it was not closing the door on a joint investigation of the facts.
The media relished the theatrical nature of those exchanges. By contrast, the public part of the last China-US strategic dialogue, held during the Obama administration, consisted of mutually supportive and conciliatory messages from both sides and ended with an upbeat declaration about more than 100 areas of cooperation.
Activists welcomed the candor and public display of emotions, and likely felt vindicated. However, it is not clear whether this new public conduct in diplomacy will continue. A lot will depend on the assessments of its impact.
China stressed its commitment to “follow and uphold” the “UN-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law.” Although they disagree on some of the details and precise mechanisms, China and the US appeared to accept in principle the universally agreed rules of state conduct and UN institutions that are dedicated to upholding international law, including international human rights law, which appeared to be the most contentious issue.
Beijing appears to object to what it describes as a unilateral approach by Western nations, instead of referring the matter — in this case the situation in Xinjiang — to an impartial investigation. For example, the US, EU, UK and Canada this week imposed sanctions on several Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, prompting retaliation from China, which in turn sanctioned a number of Western officials.
The Chinese side also implied there are ulterior motives for raising human rights issues. In Alaska, it said that China-US competition should be focused on the “economic aspect,” suggesting that “for frictions in our economic engagement, it is important to respond to them in a rational way and seek win-win results.” Compartmentalizing human rights concerns may not be accepted by all, but there appears to be agreement that they may be raised in international forums.
There are international institutions that can serve as a platform for addressing concerns and resolving disputes.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The GCC and like-minded nations and blocs could work with both sides to search for common ground, address their legitimate concerns, and work to defuse the new conflict. The US-Soviet Cold War was devastating to small countries, which frequently served as fodder in a conflict that lasted more than 40 years. Fortunately, this time around there are international institutions that can serve as a platform for addressing concerns and resolving disputes. Most were set up following the Second World War and were not in a position to stave off the start of the Cold War or deal with some of the superpower rivalry at the time. Now we have a chance, as those international entities have developed useful tools to adjudicate on such differences.
There are many candidates to blame for the recent erosion of the rules-based international political and trading systems. It is important to reverse that erosion, capitalizing on the fact that the two major powers, China and the US, have made a firm commitment to those systems, while disagreeing on who is at fault.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1