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Boston College Expert: US-China Relations

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Robert Ross

Robert Ross
Professor of Political Science
office: 617.552.3259
cell: 617-733-4131

Professor Ross' research focuses on Chinese security policy, nationalism and Chinese defense policy, East Asian security, and U.S.-China relations. Ross is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations and Senior Advisor to the Institute for American Studies, Shanghai.  He has testified before various Senate and House committees and the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee and he advises various U.S. government agencies.  He is the author of the books, Chinese Security Policy: Structure, Power, and Politics; Negotiating Cooperation: The United States and China, 1969-1989; The Indochina Tangle: China's Vietnam Policy, 1975-1979 and co-author of Great Wall and Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security. He is co-editor of the books: China’s Ascent: Power, Security, and the Future of International Politics; US-China-EU Relations: Managing the New World Order; and New Directions in the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy



As Vice President Joseph Biden prepares for a dinner meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping where that country’s Air Defense Identification Zone will be the main course of discussion, the Obama administration is caught walking a diplomatic tightrope.

“We really don’t want to take sides in the territorial dispute and we’ve tried to avoid it for a long time,” says Boston College Political Science Professor Robert Ross, Ph.D., who is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations.  “So we don’t want to allow this particular episode, however much we may find it objectionable, to get in the way of larger U.S.-China cooperation.”

At issue is China’s insistence that any aircraft flying through the expanded zone in the East China Sea must first submit a flight plan to Beijing, which says it reserves the right to deny entry to the airspace. While most countries in Northeast Asia have zones like these, this particular zone extends over small islands that Japan has had administrative control over, and that’s the genesis of the diplomatic dance by the United States given its improved relations with China over the last year, and Japan’s position as a long time U.S. ally.

“U.S. policy has been to say on the one hand we reject the effort to challenge Japan’s administration of these islands, but since 2012 in fact the United States has distanced itself from the dispute,” says Dr. Ross, a Senior Advisor to the Institute for American Studies in Shanghai. “U.S.-China relations have been improving since last year – this is a trend that we have welcomed and here we have this issue to deal with. And the United States has to walk a fine line because this is a clear case of China challenging Japan’s administration of the airspace. We said we oppose such activity and so we are compelled, and it’s in our interest to do so, to resist and make loud and clear our objections and in so doing we’re also supporting Japan, our ally, and reminding Japan and China of our commitment to Japan. At the same time, it’s been clear since September of last year that we don’t want this island dispute to get in the way of larger U.S.-China cooperation. The dispute is over worthless pieces of rock which have neither mineral resources nor strategic benefits to anyone who possesses them.”

The Vice-President’s trip to Asia was supposed to focus on economic issues, but those have taken a back seat to rising tensions. Yesterday in Tokyo, Biden urged both China and Japan to work out a solution. At dinner with the Chinese president tonight, he’s expected to deliver a stern message to China and urge it to scale back its patrols over the disputed area - all the while making sure the United States stays on good terms with both countries.

“So what Biden has done is that he has simply laid out very clearly that we reject these activities of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone because it challenges Japan’s administration of the territories,” says Professor Ross, author and co-author of six books on China and Chinese relations with the world. “It says nothing about sovereignty, nothing about defending it, nothing even about resisting. It’s a very strong statement of objecting and a reaffirmation of our commitment while simultaneously saying that Japan and China have to find a way to lower the tension, and he’s made that mutual. Japan and China - not just China - have to find a way to lower the tension and to avoid accidents, and that’s a mutual responsibility, so he’s walking that fine line of supporting Japan, resisting Chinese activities but refusing to support Japan that this is all China’s fault going forward.

“We have lived with China’s challenge to Japanese administration of the island since September of last year without allowing it to get in the way of U.S.-China cooperation,” continues Professor Ross, who just returned from a research trip to Beijing last week. “And I would suspect we are trying to move back to that situation as quickly as possible in the aftermath of the Biden visit. Once the Vice President finishes doing what he’s doing, I think the United States would like to find a way to walk this back. While he is in Beijing, he will be very firm in our opposition to unilateral efforts to challenge Japanese administration of the islands but he will also make clear he wants to see a mutual reduction of tensions which, from the Chinese perspective, is a fairly neutral statement.”  

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Sean Hennessey
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Office of News and Public Affairs
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(617) 552-3630 (office)
(617) 943-4323 (cell)


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