Thu, Aug 01, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Snowden a hiccup in US-China ties

By Sushil Seth

The summit sought to deal with managing US-China relations over regional maritime disputes and cyberespionage. The two nations reportedly declared their determination to keep these issues, as the New York Times reported, “from descending into a Cold War mentality and to avoid the pitfalls of a rising power [China] confronting an established one.”

This is the real problem. Recent history, in terms of the two world wars, is not reassuring on managing relations between an emerging superpower and an established one, especially when the emerging power (China) believes that the US is trying to limit its “legitimate” sphere of influence.

Just after the US-China summit came the Snowden spy saga, which revealed that the US was also hacking into Chinese systems. This has seriously embarrassed the US and compromised accusations that China is hacking US economic and defense secrets. Not surprisingly, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson — obviously with some glee — said: “I would like to advise these people [US officials] to hold up a mirror, reflect and take care of their own situation first.”

By not getting entangled in the Snowden affair, China has acted smartly. Of course, it did displease the US and might further complicate US-China relations.

There was one positive outcome of the summit that pleased the US, and that concerned North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. According to US media, US and Chinese officials appear to be finally on the same page on how to contain a nuclear North Korea. This includes using China’s economic leverage and keeping North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the outside until he falls in line.

It is clear that Pyongyang is already feeling the heat from China. A recent visit to China by a high-level North Korean emissary did not get much traction. Apparently, he was told that Pyongyang should lower the temperature and resume nuclear talks. The North has also been making overtures to South Korea and the US. The recent visit to China by South Korean President Park Geun-hye and high-level talks with top Chinese leaders was another signal to Pyongyang of Beijing’s displeasure. China and South Korea both agree on the denuclearization of North Korea.

This is a positive development as far as this issue goes, but if regional disputes flare up, with the US committed to its regional allies, China might not push North Korea too far into the abyss because it remains a useful strategic buffer against Washington.

In a nutshell, the recent US-China summit was a useful development, athough it was later marred by the Snowden affair. However, Joseph Nye, a Harvard University political scientist and an old hand on US-China affairs, was way off the mark when he reportedly described the summit as “the most important meeting between an American president and a Chinese leader in 40 years since [former US president Richard] Nixon and Mao [Zedong (毛澤東)].”

Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.

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