If, as President of China Xi Jinping describes it, we are in the era of what he grandly calls a 'new model of major power relations' between the US and China, that implies a different kind of dialogue between the two, and new ways of cooperating. But US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to China for one day of talks last week shows where things have really moved between the two key global powers now — and indicates more stasis than dynamism, despite the bold new words.
First, the positives. Kerry acknowledged China’s constructive role last year in negotiations with Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions. The fact that Xi himself had just visited the Middle East for the first time in his life, and gone not only to established ally Egypt but on to Saudi Arabia and Iran, only underlined this potential new role for China as a mediator and increasingly important player in the region.
The issue for Beijing, however, is its desperate desire not to be dragged into the interminable political headaches and divided allegiances that would plague any escalations of its involvement in the Middle East. It seems that, even with a seemingly more expansive foreign policy world-view, China is happy to maintain a low profile. Xi’s tour through the Arab world was remarkably low key compared to the pomp and sense of occasion he seemed to prefer in tours through Europe, America and elsewhere. It is almost as though he didn't want the world to know he was there.
Closer to home, things are a little different, as Kerry's talks made clear. On North Korea, the central issue under discussion during Kerry's visit, China is also passive and self effacing, but in another fashion. It does not want a new UN resolution with any real teeth to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear test in early January; it seems willing to live with a neighbour which has the technology to put nuclear material on missiles and get them to the coast of the US; it seems loath to place much more pressure on the Kim regime, despite clear statements that Washington now sees a direct threat from Pyongyang. Diplomatically, it wants to follow the somewhat tepid route of allowing space for others by re-establishing the Six Party Talks, languishing since 2008. Its leadership in this area consists of saying 'no' to most things, and refusing to take strong leadership.
For all the protestations from Beijing that China lacks real leverage in North Korea, the bottom line (as Kerry and everyone else knows) is that were China to simply stop all oil and resource exports to its neighbour, Kim’s regime would probably be finished in about a week, perhaps less.
China accounts for about 90% of these exports, so Beijing is clearly the Kim regime’s greatest sponsor and most powerful and significant patron, with the power to pressure Pyongyang in ways no one else can. That is why Kerry devoted so much of his one-day visit to trying to induce China to use this leverage. Evidently, he failed.
This specific issue raises far wider diplomatic questions. Do the US and China really work within the a framework of a 'new model' of major-power relations? If so, it doesn't look that different to how things were in the past.
For all the talk of China playing a greater role globally, and pursuing some subtle scheme to dominate the rest of the world, North Korea is always the great spoiler. It is clearly not in Beijing's interests to have yet another nuclear power on its borders, joining Pakistan, India, and Russia. Nor does there seem to be much affection between these so-called allies. North Korea literally airbrushed pictures of Politburo member Liu Yunshan from photos showing their commemorations of the end of the Second World War in Asia last year, despite him being the highest level figure from China to have visited since 2012. Xi and Kim seem to share a mutual disdain for each other. And yet, while North Korea is doing everything it can to get attention from and direct access to the US, China is making sure the US remains frustrated and thwarted.
Kerry's visit shows that ambiguity about Chinese views of America’s role in the region remains as strong as ever. When it suits China, it continues to want the US. But Beijing also resents Washington, accepts it in some areas, and rejects it in others.
The new model of major-power relations Xi has talked about since 2014 so far remains largely rhetorical, with little new real diplomatic content. On the South China Sea, on North Korea, and on Taiwan and cross-Strait relations, there has been no radical break with the past under Xi. Views of the US remain much as they were under his predecessors: as a power half envied and half disliked. Kerry’s visit did little if anything to shift that ambiguity.
Photo courtesy of US Department of State