Despite recent diplomatic efforts by Washington and Beijing to keep the bilateral relationship on an even keel, China has continued to behave assertively in the Asia-Pacific and Chinese President Xi Jinping has effectively promulgated his own vision for a regional and global order. In the absence of a robust or coherent US policy for the region, China appears to have gained the upper hand in terms of the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

On 22 June, China and the United States held an inaugural high-level diplomatic and security dialogue in Washington DC, one of four mechanisms established at the 6 April bilateral summit between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Aimed at promoting bilateral ties through broadening cooperation and managing differences, both sides agreed that the dialogue was ‘constructive’ and ‘fruitful’. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s opposite numbers were State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Chief of the Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department, General Fang Fenghui. This reflected the real allocation of power in China’s current strategic hierarchy. Yang, a former ambassador to the United States with flawless English, reportedly laid out Chinese requests in pre-inauguration meetings with top Trump aides in New York.

Despite expectations of turbulence in the US–China relationship at the outset of the Trump presidency, the Mar-a-Lago summit on 6 April appeared satisfactory to both the United States and China. According to a Chinese official statement following the meeting, both presidents agreed to advance bilateral relations from a ‘new starting point’. Xi stressed that there were ‘a thousand reasons to make China–US relations a success and not a single reason to break’ them. He further urged increasing the size of the ‘cake of cooperation’ and reaping early harvests in the development of bilateral relations in ‘the new era’. Xi and Trump agreed on a 100-day plan for trade talks during the summit and expressed willingness to resolve trade friction. On defence and security, the last-minute addition of General Fang indicated some progress in building a new matrix of engagement between the United States and China. Calling on both countries to maintain ‘the right direction’, Yang repeated Xi’s statement that the Mar-a-Lago summit had set the course for Sino-American relations in ‘the new era’ and that bilateral ties had since made new and positive progress.

Both sides looked ahead to Trump and Xi’s next meeting at the G20 summit in July, and to Trump’s state visit to China later in 2017. Tillerson noted that the four parallel consultation mechanisms proposed by Xi – covering security and diplomacy, economics and trade, law enforcement and security, and social and people-to-people exchanges – allowed China and the United States to consider how they were going to ‘live with one another over the next 40 years’. Tillerson endorsed expanded cooperation on areas of shared security interest and direct and frank discussions on perceived threats and differences in the relationship, and stated that the United States had no intention of containing China. Also discussed were deeper military-to-military cooperation on humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy and military medicine, enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation and the implementation of confidence-building measures. China further called for a resumption of talks about reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and implementing UN Security Council resolutions.

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