I have recently participated in many academic seminars. When discussing China’s bilateral issues with other countries, the US factor is always included. Sometimes the US factor even became the theme of these seminars, as if eliminating the US factor is the panacea for resolving China’s bilateral issues. In fact, generalizing or magnifying the US factor is not conducive to China’s handling of bilateral issues.
We have established partnerships at different levels with more than 100 countries and international organizations in the world, but it is inevitable that we have bilateral problems with some countries. These problems include territorial or maritime rights disputes, trade frictions, historical issues and human rights or other ideological issues.
These bilateral issues are not the whole picture in our relations with other countries. Most of these issues were formed due to history, including territorial or maritime rights disputes and historical issues. Some of them, such as trade frictions, are structural problems. Some are cognitive differences, such as human rights issues. These problems are difficult to solve in a short period of time. We need strategic patience to resolve them through bilateral channels, rather than through third-party factors such as the US factor.
China previously had territorial disputes with its neighbor Vietnam. But through rounds of friendly negotiations, the two sides signed the Land Boundary Treaty on December 30, 1999 and resolved the dispute. Although China and Vietnam still have disputes over islands and reefs in the South China Sea, they remain under control. In recent years, the US has continuously wooed Vietnam to confront China on the South China Sea issue through the so-called freedom of navigation plan, defense cooperation and financial assistance.
However, China-Vietnam relations have not deviated from the normal track. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the China-Vietnam trade volume even increased instead of declining. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade, China-Vietnam trade reached $117.09 billion from January to November, including $43.145 billion of Vietnam’s exports to China (a rise of 16 percent year on year) and $73.945 billion of imports from China (a rise of 7.9 percent year on year).
Ironically, in October and November, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien visited Vietnam and tried to rope in Vietnam to oppose China. Their attempts failed. On December 16, the US labeled Vietnam a currency manipulator and tried to continue to force Vietnam to choose sides between China and the US. Obviously, it is impossible for Vietnam to cut ties with China. After all, China and Vietnam have broader interests.
The China-Vietnam relationship is a microcosm of the relationship between China and Southeast Asia. Connecting Asia and Oceania, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Southeast Asia has a prominent geographical position. Especially in the context of the intensifying China-US competition, Southeast Asia plays an important role. For Southeast Asia, the US factor is just a card to counter China’s rising influence. It is by no means that the US factor will determine the direction of Southeast Asia’s diplomacy.
2020 was an important year for China-Southeast Asia relations. 2020 marked the 70th anniversary of China’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia, the 45th anniversary of China’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Thailand and the Philippines, and the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Singapore. Affected by COVID-19, some large offline celebrations were forced to be canceled, but the online celebrations were carried out vividly. During the pandemic, investment and trade between China and Southeast Asia rose against the trend in both directions. The two sides set up a new model called the “green channel,” which has become a model of regional health cooperation. Meanwhile, some high-ranking US officials continued to visit Southeast Asia, trying to woo regional countries to decouple from China.
But they produced very little effect.
It is undeniable that China and some Southeast Asian countries have certain bilateral problems, but these countries pursue a pivoting strategy between major powers.
It is in line with their own national interests not to choose sides. China seeks common ground while reserving differences when dealing with Southeast Asian countries. China focuses on cooperation and prevents the US from driving a wedge between China and these countries. China has minimized the influence of the US factor.
China also has territorial disputes with India. Since the 2017 Doklam standoff, India and the US set up the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue according to their own needs. But India will not completely turn to the US because non-alignment is an important principle of India’s diplomacy and the relationship with Russia is a tradition of India’s diplomacy. Chinese and Indian leaders have emphasized the need to effectively manage and handle differences, seeking a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the China-India border issue.
The establishment of a legal, efficient and reliable China-India border dispute settlement mechanism is an important guarantee for realizing the vision of Chinese and Indian leaders. The establishment of such a mechanism depends on the joint efforts of China and India, not the US.
In short, the US factor always exists in China’s bilateral relations with other countries. But in most cases, it is not a key factor. This requires China to focus more on other countries’ core concerns when dealing with bilateral ties, and to truly build a community of a shared future for mankind.
The author is the director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.