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Kerry to take firm stance over South China Sea

Beijing's concerns over Washington's plans to assert freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea will be high on the agenda during US Secretary of State John Kerry's upcoming China trip, David Dollar tells DW.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is set travel to China this weekend (May 16-17) to discuss a host of bilateral and regional issues with senior Chinese officials. The trip comes at a time of mounting tensions between the two powers over a string of security and economic irritants plaguing their relationship.

While the US authorities recently revealed plans to deploy military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, China responded by saying that it was "extremely concerned" and seeking clarification.

Washington had earlier expressed concern about the pace and scope of recent Chinese land reclamation work on disputed islands in the South China Sea, and US President Barack Obama last month accused China of "flexing its muscles" to advance its territorial claims.

During the visit, Kerry is also expected to discuss the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) which is scheduled to be held in Washington at the end of next month, and also pave the way for Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned trip to the US in September. Kerry will also visit South Korea on May 17-18 for talks with the country's President Park Geun-hye, including preparations for her planned US visit in June.

David Dollar Experte bei Brookings

Dollar: 'The US is quite firm about freedom of navigation'

David Dollar, an expert on US-China economic relations, says in a DW interview that overall, relations between China and the US are currently good. However, China feels that the general US support to countries such as Japan and the Philippines in the territorial disputes is not helpful, while the US sees China's actions in the disputed waters as provocative, he adds.

DW: How likely will the latest US military plans affect Sino-US ties?

David Dollar: The US is quite firm about freedom of navigation. Navigation should be open to all ships beyond 12 nautical miles of inhabited islands. That position means that, regardless of which country has sovereignty over different islands, most of the South China Sea is freely open to navigation.

There have been reports that the US Navy is considering sending ships throughout the South China Sea to demonstrate this freedom of navigation. The Chinese side is very concerned about these plans and no doubt they will be discussed both during Secretary Kerry's visit to Beijing and at the S&ED.

What will be the key issues on the agenda during John Kerry's Beijing visit?

Kerry's visit will lay the foundation for Xi Jinping's trip to the US in September and for the S&ED that will be held in Washington in June. On the security side the main issues are the maritime disputes between China and its neighbors and North Korea's threatening behavior.

On the economic side US Treasury Secretary was recently in Beijing to discuss governance standards for the AIIB, exchange-rate policy, climate change and Chinese regulation of information and communications technology.

China Bildergalerie Chinas Diplomatie mit dem Bagger

The pace and scope of Chinese land reclamation work in the South China Sea sparked concerns in Washington

Do you expect any single issue to dominate talks during the upcoming US-China S&ED?

No one issue will dominate the S&ED because the dialogue is specifically set up to cover the full range of issues between China and the US. There are important areas where the relationship is quite positive.

The S&ED will be a good opportunity for each country to update the other on its specific plans concerning carbon reduction, which can contribute to a successful Paris climate change summit later this year. There are also contentious issues such as the maritime disputes and China's expanding trade surplus.

What are currently the main challenges overshadowing Sino-US ties?

Relations between China and the US are currently pretty good. However, on the economic side, China's trade surplus is starting to grow again and to subtract from the US recovery. The US would like to see China open up its markets that remain closed, particularly to open up its service sectors such as finance, telecom, logistics and health care.

The regulation of ICT is one of the barriers that China uses to keep out foreign investment. On the security side, while the US is neutral on the territorial disputes, China feels that the general US support to countries such as Japan and the Philippines is not helpful, while the US sees China's actions in the disputed waters as provocative.

Karte Südchinesisches Meer Englisch

Washington recently revealed plans to deploy military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea

What role can the US play in the territorial disputes?

The US encourages all sides to commit to peaceful resolution of the claims. It has pushed for codes of conduct on the sea and in the air that would reduce the risk of miscalculation and of military incidents.

Pyongyang recently said it had successfully test-fired a missile from a submarine, which, if true, would mark a significant development for isolated North Korea's military capability. Is there any common ground between the US and China on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear program?

On North Korea, the US and China have a common interest in limiting nuclear development and in reining in North Korea's rogue behavior. The two sides tend to disagree somewhat on tactics with the US taking a tough position on sanctions whereas China fears that too harsh a policy on North Korea is likely to lead to destabilizing actions from the regime.

David Dollar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution a leading expert on China's economy and US-China economic relations. From 2009 to 2013, Dollar was the U.S. Treasury Department's economic and financial emissary to China.

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