China’s top foreign affairs official played down disputes with the U.S. over shipping lanes and cyberhacking, as President Barack Obama prepares to host counterpart Xi Jinping on his first state visit.
State Councilor Yang Jiechi said in an interview that Xi’s trip would bolster a relationship that has weathered various disagreements in the four decades since Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing. Ties should continue to advance, even as the Obama administration considers retaliation for alleged raids on U.S. computer systems and accuses China of threatening Asia-Pacific stability by building islands in the South China Sea.
“We have covered a long journey,” Yang, who oversees China’s foreign affairs, said Sept. 9 in Beijing. “There might be twists and turns and ups and downs, but the general direction of the relationship is development,” he said. “We have to make sure that the visit will be a great success. I think that’s the true feeling of the two peoples.”
Xi’s visit comes during a year that has shown the countries’ growing strategic competition alongside their economic dependency, with China set to overtake Canada as the U.S.’s top trading partner. China has also found itself cast by Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates as an American jobs-killer after a stock market rout in Shanghai and sudden devaluation of the yuan sparked a global selloff.
China’s challenge to U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific was demonstrated earlier this month by a military parade in Beijing featuring missiles designed to penetrate an aircraft carrier. The same week, Chinese naval vessels passed through international waters in the Bering Sea while Obama toured nearby Alaska.
Yang stressed China’s commitment to peace, noting Xi used the word 18 times in a speech at the Sept. 3 event marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“China’s military force is for national defense, period," said Yang, who previously served as foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. “I hope that people will not ascribe some other motives to China’s defense establishment and its efforts in the right direction.”
The two sides face tensions over the South China Sea, a vital shipping route the U.S. has patrolled largely unchallenged since the war. China has been building islands to assert its claim to more than four-fifths of the waters, overlapping claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Beijing has protested U.S. surveillance fights over the disputed reefs while the U.S. has opposed any militarization of the area. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter rebuffed the Chinese in May, saying the U.S. would fly or sail wherever international law allowed. China had reclaimed more than 2,900 acres (1,200 hectares) as of June, according to a Pentagon report, more than 30 times the land built by Vietnam.
The land reclamation was finished and provided the region with facilities for meteorological, environmental protection and search-and-rescue services, Yang said, though he wouldn’t rule out some military presence.
“Some of our territory is surrounded by military, you know, installments of other countries, so there is reasonable ground to have some defense facilities on these islands,” Yang said.
The Chinese president is expected to arrive in Washington on Sept. 24 after a stop in Seattle. He will meet Obama the following day before attending a state dinner. Envoys including U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice have been shuttling through Beijing laying the ground for the event.
Among other things, Xi wants Obama to affirm respect for a "new model of major country relationship," a phrase that connotes a greater level of parity between the world’s two largest economies. Yang used the term three times during the interview.
The cybersecurity issue has become even more pressing for the U.S. after concerns that data stolen from its Office of Personnel Management could be used to identify intelligence officers or to blackmail government employees. The White House has declined to say who it believed was behind the attack, but James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, in June described China as a “leading suspect.”
Obama said Sept. 16 the U.S. is readying measures to forcefully demonstrate that economic espionage won’t be tolerated. Discussions with Xi will include behavior in cyberspace, he said.
“We don’t want to see the Internet weaponized,” Obama said. “Our goal is to have them as a partner in helping to have a set of international rules and norms that help everybody.”
The U.S. government is drafting plans, including economic sanctions and curbs on doing business in the U.S., to punish nations that hack into corporate computer networks, administration officials said Aug. 31, less than a week after Rice concluded a visit to Beijing.
China has sought to defuse the dispute. Meng Jianzhu, China’s top legal and domestic security official, flew to Washington for four days of talks with Rice and others this month. The result was an “important consensus” on fighting cybercrimes, according to Xinhua. The White House described the discussions as a “frank and open exchange about cyber issues.”
“China itself is a victim of hacking activities and the Chinese government is firmly against hacking of any kind,” Yang said, reiterating earlier denials by representatives of his government. “Every country should take a responsible, prudent attitude and should proceed on factual ground.”
In 2013, Edward Snowden accused the U.S. National Security Agency of hacking the computers of one of China’s top research centers. Last year, China suspended participation in a cybersecurity working group after the U.S. indicted five Chinese military officials on claims they stole trade secrets.
“China and the United States and other countries should really try to work together, work out the rules for cybersecurity in the spirit of equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect,” Yang said.