John F. Kennedy’s wise response to China’s Communists in the 1961 Yalta summit was: “It is not in our power to determine how the Chinese Communists choose to organize their government or what they choose to call it.”
This insight still applies today. Just a few weeks ago, John Kerry, who ran President Obama’s foreign policy in Syria and Afghanistan, rang up Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and told him that China’s Xi Jinping is headed to Buenos Aires for the G20 for the theme, “win-win cooperation,” which suggests engagement by President Trump and Beijing. Why not?
China says that winning isn’t key. Beijing has taken its doors open to Trump. It will make President Xi’s visit and President Trump will deliver some kind of joint statement. So what’s wrong with that?
After all, Japan’s Abe and Xi just talked and they reached an agreement, the “30th Anniversary Agreement” that involves practically everything and at least indicates that Abe could find a landing spot with Beijing if he sets conditions. Even Trump can get something done from time to time. It is a cultural phenomenon. Cultures and attitudes change incrementally and this is one of those “gradualism,” as Obama called it in 2016.
Japan and China are today almost the same size and face an almost identical crossroads, if not directly, at least within eyesight. Both are wealthy and intellectually advanced and both are geographically near each other. The greater part of the nations’ trade is through Han China and Okinawan fishing boats have been visible in the east side of the disputed Diaoyu Islands.
The U.S. has said that it recognizes China’s sovereignty, but the goal of the U.S. South China Sea strategy is to keep China out of this uninhabited waters. Washington is trying to ensure that the South China Sea is mostly open and allow trade there to continue. To this end, Trump signed the Code of Conduct in January, a preliminary working agreement to try to have everyone avoid war and make the sea passable to ships and aircraft. Then he added a few commercial navigational restrictions for the U.S. navy. This was perhaps done with China’s blessing. Both are important for American security.
If President Xi’s meetings with Trump are anything like his meetings with Japan, a more robust Japanese and American policy toward Beijing will be much needed. Ultimately, China’s big land and sea weapons should make it much harder for Beijing to rule the “maritime sea” for decades to come.
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Jason Smyth is president of the agency RAPP and director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
This story originally appeared on The Christian Science Monitor.