The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue: An Interview with Professor Wu Xinbo

The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue: An Interview with Professor Wu Xinbo

Professor Wu Xinbo is Executive Dean of the Institute of International Studies, and Director at the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. A renowned expert on Chinese foreign policy and Sino-U.S. relations, Professor Wu recently shared his thoughts with GRI regarding the current state of U.S.-China ties ahead of the U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue (held June 5th-7th).

The South China Sea: “Not really a U.S.-China issue”

GRI: While there are many topics to be considered, what do you see as the priority issues to be identified at the Dialogue?

Professor Wu: This is not a time to look for much progress in U.S.-China ties. President Obama is counting down his presidency. I think it’s more important to manage the difficulties and disputes well. Especially the South China Sea issue.

Actually, in China, there’s a perception that the U.S. military has been taking the lead in the South China Sea issue. There seems to be a clear difference between the White House and the military on this very issue. So, there is a concern that as Obama gets weaker and weaker the military will have a freer hand in getting involved in the South China Sea issue. That may potentially cause some form of accident with the Chinese military. This accident could then escalate into a crisis. This is why this is the priority issue for the bilateral relationship at the moment.

GRI:  Given the current status of the South China Sea issue, is it unlikely to clear up in the near future?

Professor Wu: Of course not.  This is an issue between China and some of its neighbors: Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. It’s not really a U.S.-China issue, but in the last two years the U.S. took a very hands on approach to get more directly involved—not only diplomatically, but more and more militarily. But, at the end of the day, this issue has to be resolved between China and the other direct claimants — by themselves.

The good news is that at the moment Vietnam has been pretty quiet on this issue, and the Philippines is going to have a new president who may have a somewhat different approach to this issue. So, that leaves hope for China to engage and search for a solution to this issue in the long term, and also management of the dispute in the short to mid-term.

GRI: China has done a favor to its neighbors in setting up the new AIIB development bank. Since some of the other claimants may not have the resources to mine the oil and mineral resources in the South China Sea, has China ever spoken to them about taking the lead on extraction and giving them a cut? It would be a lot cheaper than the conflict that could result from the dispute.

Professor Wu: Actually, Vietnam has invested heavily in exploring the oil and natural gas. They have even exported the oil they get from the South China Sea to China for many years. Vietnam has set in place hundreds of oil rigs in the South China Sea for almost two decades.

The Philippines has not done much, but Malaysia has cleared a lot of oil from the South China Sea as well. In the past, China was unable to do this because it didn’t have the technology for deep water clearing. It was only in the past two years when China had the technology that it began to move into the deeper water in the South China Sea and drill for oil.

In the 1980s, China proposed a joint exploration of the resources, but other countries just went ahead on their own to drill oil. We should go back to them about a joint venture for joint exploration of new resources. The 1980s proposal is still very much on the table. However, since the other countries have benefited from their operations in the South China Sea, there may not be an incentive for them to agree with China on this joint venture proposal.  

GRI: Since matters have escalated, it would also take some de-escalation before those discussions could occur.

Professor Wu: Right. That depends on the political relations between China and some of the countries like Vietnam or the Philippines. I think for China, it could depend on if we are able to put this issue in the direct context of bilateral regime relationships.

For China, the Philippines’ current President — President Aquino — took a very high profile approach on this issue and made bilateral relations very difficult. China is therefore looking forward to the forthcoming president, who may take a more pragmatic approach to this issue. If that happens, we may suddenly have cut down the dissension in the South China Sea.

Why “China’s claim is nothing new”

GRI: To address your perception that the U.S. military is taking the lead in the South China Sea dispute, I’d like to say that — in my experience as a civilian working with the U.S. military — there was no question that the military would submit to civilian authority when push came to shove. Historically, President Truman fired General MacArthur when he advanced beyond the positions authorized by the White House.

Professor Wu: Currently, we have people like Admiral Harry Harris, the head of PACOM. He has been very outspoken on the South China Sea issue. He has openly said he is ready for a war with China — right away. That he was able to make that kind of statement caused concern in China that the military is out of control in the midst of a weaker Obama White House.

GRI: Some PLA officers have similarly said provocative things, especially about a potential war with Japan. Military guys can be impolitical that way.

Professor Wu: On our side, the military is usually not authorized to make this sort of very provocative statement. They perform their duties, but do not act as spokesmen on foreign policy issues. In the U.S., the Pentagon and PACOM currently have the louder voice. Much louder than the State Department on the South China Sea issue.

GRI: At the moment, I don’t see anything more going on than U.S. flyovers and ships entering the area that we see as international waters and you see as Chinese territory. This may not be pleasant for either side, but I don’t see it as escalating — particularly if we have ongoing engagements, unless we allow it to escalate.

Professor Wu: There are certainly differences between the two sides. When the U.S. talks about international waters, that’s not a concept in international law. In international law, you have territorial waters, contiguous or EEZ areas, and high seas.

The U.S. uses international waters as a term that includes exclusive economic zones and treats them as high seas. It believes that its actions and operations in an EEZ of another country is just like operations on the high seas. It’s different for China and some other countries like Vietnam and India. Like China, they believe there should be restrictions on foreign military in a state’s EEZ. This is a major difference between our two sides.

Also, when the U.S. talks about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, this is against international law. The U.S. launched the freedom of navigation operation just as the UNCLOS agreement was to go into effect. The U.S, was concerned that UNCLOS would somehow limit freedom of navigation. It launched this operation in defiance of UNCLOS.

This makes the freedom of navigation operation not in accord with international law, but rather a unilateral U.S. action — one trying to globally defy the possible limits on U.S. actions by UNCLOS. This has been going on for many decades.

GRI: From a U.S. perspective, China has extended its territorial limits beyond what is acceptable and reasonable.

Professor Wu: It’s not true. If you look at the record, China’s claim is nothing new. It even asserted the claim half a century ago. It’s just that China has now taken action to bolster this claim. In the past, China adopted a more passive stance on this issue because it lacked resources, or Chinese political attention was not there.

Now, China has more resources and is more attentive to the South China Sea and began to take action. They’ve started reclamation of islands and reefs. It will possibly deploy both civilian and military facilities on the newly built islands. So that is a difference, but in terms of the claim it’s nothing new. The KMT and Taiwan have held the same position on this claim.

Outlook: “A lot of areas for collaboration and cooperation”

GRI: Beyond the South China Sea, let’s discuss the other economic and security issues being dealt with in the Dialogue. We’re on the same side on many economic issues, counter-terrorism, UN peacekeeping, and humanitarian efforts. Do you think the areas of commonality in U.S.-China relations will ultimately defuse the areas where we’re verging on conflict?

Professor Wu: On the economic side, there’s a call to push forward the negotiation about the mutual investment treaty between our two countries. I don’t know whether Obama will be able to complete this negotiation in the remaining period of his presidency, but the business communities in both countries are eager to see an early conclusion of this bilateral investment treaty. Even more Chinese investment will be coming to the U.S.

In international and global issues, certainly the Korean peninsula is a major area of collaboration between our two countries. We have been in very close consultation since North Korea’s recent nuclear tests early this year. In Afghanistan, China and the U.S. are working hand in hand not only to bolster the government in Kabul, but also to push for political reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government. We hope that, in the future, the internal war will be brought to an end in that very unfortunate country. We also help fight terrorism in the Middle East — including the Islamic State — and just yesterday China’s peacekeepers in Mali were attacked, with some killed and some wounded. The attack was most likely from terrorist organizations.  

Also, of course, there’s been U.S.-China collaboration on climate change for several years.  We do have a lot of areas for collaboration and cooperation in a world characterized by more chaos. So we really should present an issue like the South China Sea in the greater context. That issue is not the entire picture of U.S.-China relations.


In addition to his work at his work at the Institute of International Studies and Fudan University, Professor Wu serves on the board of several Chinese and international journals. He was also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk, where he had previously served as Vice Chair and Chair.

Interested in reading more on the U.S.-China relationship? Professor Wu’s distinguished publication record includes Managing Crisis and Sustaining Peace between China and the U.S. (published by USIP), and U.S. Asia-Pacific Security Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (published by Fudan University).

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

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Lawrence Katzenstein

Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.