U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Beijing on Friday, a doubly auspicious date that marked both Valentine’s Day and the Lantern Festival in which Chinese celebrate the end of the lunar new year period.
“[This] is an exciting time of renewal,” he said in the firework-shrouded Chinese capital on Friday evening, part of a four-nation swing through Asia. Kerry described “a profound sense of optimism, as we heard from the [Chinese] leadership throughout the day.”
Kerry, who met with China’s President Xi Jinping and other top leaders, pointed out multiple areas in which he saw common cause between what he termed “two great powers”—a commitment to achieving a non-nuclear North Korea and Iran, concern over the mounting humanitarian disaster in Syria, and joint and largely unheralded efforts to avert further crises in places like South Sudan and Afghanistan.
But Kerry, who is making his fifth visit to Asia since taking office last year, also pointed out areas of profound disagreement between the two nations, such as U.S. concern over China’s human rights record. He singled out a mounting crackdown on civil society activists and the treatment of ethnic minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs under President Xi.
“We did [have] a frank discussion of some human rights challenges, the role of rule of law and the free flow of information in a robust civil society,” Kerry said on Friday evening. “The recent arrests of peaceful advocates of reform run counter, in our judgment, to all of our best efforts and the ability to make long term progress.”
But perhaps the greatest point of divergence between the two nations comes from how they parse the deteriorating security environment in East Asia. Geopolitical tensions have proliferated in recent months, as territorial disputes between China and its maritime neighbors—most notably Japan and the Philippines—have intensified amid nationalist rhetoric from all sides.
Kerry was pointed when it came to China’s formation last year of an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) that included air space also claimed by Japan, a longtime regional ally to the U.S. The controversial airspace over the East China Sea extends over islets administered by Japan but to which China maintains historic claims. Beijing’s announcement of its ADIZ came suddenly, with the U.S. and Japan only given minutes of advance notice. “We’ve made it very clear,” Kerry said, “that a unilateral, unannounced, unprocessed initiative like that can be very challenging to certain people in the region and therefore to regional stability.”
Prior to Kerry’s Asia trip, a senior State Department official sounded an even more cautionary note, saying that the U.S. was particularly concerned with the “the incremental steps that China has taken in recent months in an attempt to establish its effective control over disputed territories and to undermine the administrative control of other territories.”
For its part, Beijing has called for the U.S. to use its political leverage in Japan to push hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe away from ramping up patriotic rhetoric against China. Last December, Abe upset Chinese officials, not to mention Americans, when he visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Japan’s war dead are memorialized at the Shinto place of worship, including war criminals convicted for their roles in orchestrating Japan’s imperial rampage across Asia. Although Abe said his pilgrimage was a peaceful one, frosty relations between Japan and China chilled further.
A commentary published by Xinhua, China’s official mouthpiece, warned on Friday: “The United States has to know that, while Beijing has always been trying to address territorial brawls with some neighboring countries through peaceful means, it will not hesitate to take steps to secure its key national security interests according to China’s sovereign rights.”
The op-ed went on to warn Washington of the potentially dire consequences of inaction. “If the United States fails to tighten the loops around the hands of the far-right politicians in Japan, and sits idly by while the ex-warmonger regains the constitutional power to wage war, no one could guarantee that similar bloody attacks such as the one on the Pearl Harbor over 70 years ago would not be repeated.”
But in Seoul, South Korea, Kerry’s first stop before arriving in Beijing, the Secretary of State sidestepped matters of the past, for which many Chinese feel Japan has not adequately atoned. “We also have, frankly, issues of enormous current pressing concern that deal with security,” he said, “and that are relevant in terms of today, not in terms of history.”