Hagel: China, US should get relationship right

Updated: 2014-10-30 05:38

By CHEN WEIHUA in Washington(China Daily USA)

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Just 10 days before US President Barack Obama arrives in China for the APEC summit and a visit, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emphasized that the US-China relationship is something that needs to be made right.

In a conversation at the Washington Ideas Forum 2014 on Wednesday, Hagel said the two countries don't agree on everything. "But we should be focused, they should be focused, there are in many ways where we can cooperate," he said.

"They are a great power. They will continue to be a great power. We are a great power," he said.

The defense chief reiterated that the US rebalance strategy to the Asia-Pacific region is not about trying to contain China or to cut China short. "We don't want that to happen," he said.

Hagel, who visited China in April, noted that the US has strong obligations and treaty obligations in the region as well as economic interests there. "We can cooperate. We want to make sure that air and maritime channels are free and open. That's clearly in our interest, and in the interest of the world, not just economic interest of the world," he said. "Yes. We are going to have differences. We do have differences. But we have far more areas where we can agree. That's where we should be focused."

Hagel met with visiting Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi in Washington on Oct 20 to discuss a wide range of issues in preparation for Obama's trip to China from Nov 10-12.

Yang and Hagel discussed the importance of maintaining the positive momentum that has developed in the bilateral military-to-military relationship. They also reaffirmed their shared interest in strengthening cooperation on regional and global challenges and noted the potential for greater cooperation in several areas.

On Wednesday, Hagel touted his long relationship with China dating back to 1983 when he visited the country for the first time as a businessman, and his later acquaintance with Chinese ambassadors during his service in the US Senate from 1997 to 2009. Yang was China's ambassador to the US from 2001 to 2005. After leaving the Senate, Hagel also appeared at a seminar with former Chinese ambassador Zhang Yesui, now a vice-foreign minister.

"I got some personal relationship that has been helpful," Hagel said. "Nations always respond in their self interest. That's predictable. That's good. But personal relationship is the lubricant. Like in Congress, we can develop a little more personal relationship basis. The lubricant makes it less difficult. It doesn't change the policy, but it makes it better."

The two countries are not only each other's major trade partner, with bilateral trade exceeding $520 billion in 2013, they have also been cooperating regionally and globally on issues such as climate change, clean energy, counter-piracy and the fight against the deadly Ebola virus.

However, deep suspicion remains as many Chinese see the US rebalance strategy as a scheme to curtail China's rise while many Americans see China's rise and growing strengthen and influence as a challenge to US power.

When the US reinforces its commitment to its treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific region, in particular Japan and the Philippines, which have maritime territorial disputes with China, China sees it as a sign of emboldening these countries to take a more confrontational attitude in the disputes.

Even in the Middle East, where China's economic interest has grown enormously during the past decade, the two countries see their shared interests but have different approaches to peace and stability in the region.

Martin Indyk, vice-president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, believes that China and the US have a common interest in trying to work together to restore order out of chaos in the Middle East, now a major source of China's oil supply.

"Naturally China is not going to be playing a major role in that. But it will need to play its part commensurate with its interest," Indyk, who was US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014, said in a talk at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center in Beijing on Monday.

Tang Zhihao, a fellow at the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, blamed the US for destroying order in the Middle East, starting with the Iraq War in 2003. He cited former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak description of the war as opening a Pandora's Box.

While Tang noted that China and the US have already cooperated in the region in the Iran nuclear issue and Palestinian-Israeli talks, he said the cooperation in the Middle East will still be limited cooperation.

Tang warned China to resist the temptation of filling the power vacuum left in the Middle East after the Obama administration decided to contract its Middle East strategy.

China has not been in favor of the US regime change strategy in the Middle East in Libya three years ago and now its attempt in Syria. China maintains good relations with Iran, the US archrival.

While the US maybe more popular than in China in some regions in the world, a Pew Center survey released in July revealed that China beats the US in popularity in the Middle East by 49 percent to 30 percent.