China Likes John Kerry’s Style, But the Relationship Lacks Chemistry

John Kerry’s first visit to Asia as Secretary of State brought him to the three most important capitals in the Far East. After Seoul, Kerry visited Beijing and then Tokyo. The three cities are the epicenters of Asian relations, both historically and currently, and his itinerary was dictated by recent events. Kerry met new Chinese President Xi Jinping and other members of his administration. He was welcomed with a benevolent clean slate, considering the difference of his approach when compared to that of Hillary Clinton. According to the Chinese media, the previous administration’s positions based on principle have been replaced with a more realistic and pragmatic approach. Kerry’s different attitude is likely a sign of China’s increased negotiating weight, given its size and growth. Even when factoring in this hypothesis, the tensions between Beijing and Washington D.C. are anything but solved. The post-meeting press statements focus on the constructive atmosphere, the collaboration on fundamental problems, the will to solve problems with mediation, and yet there have not been any significant steps forward in the three primary issues on the table: sanctions against Iran, cyber terrorism, and North Korea. Beijing is refusing to take a position against Iran. Not just for the oil supply, but also because of their belief that direct interference in the internal affairs of another country is never an option. As for cyber-crime, Beijing and Washington are at loggerheads: each side is accusing the other of being responsible for the violations. The highest expectations were held for the Korean peninsula, and there were some initial agreements: “we are in agreement in asking North Korea to cease their provocations and to respect their international obligations,” were the words of John Kerry. Meanwhile, the mission has been considered a failure by western observers who were hoping for a more formal, and substantial, commitment from Beijing to stop the North Korean threat. Beijing restricted itselfto “supporting the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and that “the issue needs to be handled and resolved through dialogue and consultation.” The phrase, spoken by State Councilor Yang Jiechi – and appearing to be neutral – demonstrates the difference in the approach to Pyongyang taken by the two superpowers. The joint drafting of the recent UN resolution condemning North Korea may have given the illusion of an agreement. While the condemnation may be in common, the methods to defuse the threat are different. Beijing wants to relieve the tension while putting pressure on North Korea behind the scenes. The White House instead tends towards more drastic, public action. China would rather not see that type of solution: unbridled tension at its southern border could provide unpredictable results, each one a negative outcome for Beijing, from an exodus of refugees to warfare on its borders. This explains China’s caution and its divergence with the US vision. John Kerry is well aware and has accepted these differences, contrary to Western media who were naively expecting steps towards a resolution that are just not possible.