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China’s “core interests’" subtext: "’We will be uncompromising on the South China Sea & the Middle East!"

February 19th, 2012
 

“The visit of Chinese Vice-premier Xi Jinping to Washington included a series of top-level meetings, including with President Obama and, significantly, Defense Secretary Panetta. The objective on both sides was to overcome the “trust deficit” that has beset relations for some years. After conversations with senior US officials, our assessment is that the visit has done little to change the trajectory of relations with Beijing. While Xi made many references to friendship and cooperation between the two countries, the phase that attracted most analytic attention was his emphasis on China’s “core interests.” US officials interpret this to mean that China will co-operate where it wishes, but will be uncompromising on issues like the South China Sea and the Middle East. Conservative critics have jumped in to argue that nothing has changed. This is essentially correct. In the words of a senior State Department official with whom we discussed the visit, “The needle has not moved. We are still two great powers without an underlying theory of how our relationships either works or should evolve.” The end result is that mutual suspicion is still the order of the day. US policy will continue to veer between cooperation and preparation for possible confrontation. Elsewhere, the rapid deterioration in Syria is dominating the agenda in US-EU consultations. The Administration is under pressure from regional allies such as Saudi Arabia (and) US friends of Israel also favor arming the opposition in order to hasten the regime’s downfall which they see as transforming the power dynamics in the Middle East. While this would raise pressure on Iran, the current intelligence assessment is that Assad’s foes are divided, supported to a degree by Islamists and have not demonstrated a strategy for victory.  Regarding Iran,concern is rising in Washington that Israel is running out of patience and will go ahead with unilateral military action. National Security Adviser Donilon will travel to Israel next week to add his voice to what has been a chorus of senior Administration officials urging restraint. On the domestic scene, continued political disagreements over federal spending mean that State Department spending is coming under renewed pressure. The imbalance in the amount of US resources given to international affairs between the civilian and military sectors continues to widen.”



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