Sunday, Nov 23, 2014, 5:21 PM CST – China

International

China-US Summit

Sunshine Through the Stormclouds

The goal set by Chinese and Us leaders – no less than a complete re-evaluation of the bilateral relationship – is too crucial to ignore and too big to be achieved in the course of a routine summit

Xi Jinping and Barack Obama chat before heading into their second meeting, at the Annenberg Retreat, California, the United States, June 8, 2013 Photo by Xinhua

People get close to each other when they feel relaxed, even in the field of diplomacy. In 1971, an innocuous game of ping-pong sparked a thaw in US-China relations. In June 2013, after spending a weekend together at a beautiful retreat in California, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Barack Obama declared their commitment on building newly normalized relations between a rising superpower and the world’s only hyperpower.

A “new model of major country relationships,” to use a rather bloated phrase employed by Xi Jinping at the joint press conference with Obama in Sunnylands, California, on June 8, meant, according to the Chinese president “something different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict… of the past.” Obama responded by highlighting his readiness for “working together cooperatively, rather than engaging in conflict.”

The two men spent much of their eight-hour get-together discussing specific issues such as cyber security and North Korea. As analysts and officials on both sides had made it clear, this meeting, however, was not designed to produce deliverables on those issues so much as to decide the trajectory of bilateral relations at a critical moment in their history.

Strategic reassurance of the unlikelihood of a head-on confrontation, analysts and decision-makers believe, must be made by the two leaders in the next four to ten years, coincidently the period in which China is predicted to catch up or even supplant the US as the world’s number one economy, though few expect Beijing to supplant Washington as the agenda-setter for global geopolitics.

Sense of Insecurity

The two presidents were slated to meet in September at the G-20 summit in Russia. As US National Security Advisor Tom Dolinon explained at a press conference on June 9, however, this would have allowed too much time to pass, reducing the possibility of bilateral contact until possibly next year. Moreover, the US had long been looking forward to such a summit free from protocol, which would make it possible for the two leaders to concentrate on one-to-one discussions rather than diplomatic niceties. No such lengthy, unscripted discussions between Chinese and American presidents at the beginning of their tenures had been conducted since Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to Beijing in 1972.

Much has changed in US-China relations since the financial crisis, which unexpectedly catapulted China to the front of the economic pack, recording an even higher industrial output than the US. Neither country was prepared for this sudden shift, according to Professor Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Relations of the Renmin University of China.

Historically, the world’s number one economy typically finds itself at odds with the number two, typified by the events leading up to World War I, World War II and the Cold War. So far, a similar shadow has loomed over Sino-US relations, particularly since 2010, when the US began its “pivot to Asia.” China’s increasing entanglement in maritime disputes with US allies, its rapid modernization of its vast military and continuing support for North Korea have all unnerved US analysts. As China’s feuds with the Philippines and Japan have heated up, the South China Sea has become a potential flashpoint that could see Washington’s first military engagement with China since the Korean War.

Despite such concerns, however, today’s hegemony is more about the power to make the rules, something seldom secured on the battlefield. China came late to the party in terms of globalization and trade, having sealed herself off under Mao. However the US is concerned that an ascendant China, already showing reluctance to play by the rules, could challenge the entire system were to become the world’s foremost economic power.

Professor Li Xiangyang, director of Asia-Pacific Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences believes that US enthusiasm towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), free trade agreements for Pan-Pacific and US-EU blocs, is born out of a desire to compel China to integrate itself more completely into global capitalism.

In the political arena, too, China and the US share responsibilities and interests in tackling issues of global governance, particularly Syria, North Korea and climate change. However, according to Professor Yuan Peng, head of the US Studies department at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, their divisions on the optimum solutions to these crises make it difficult to establish a common bond.

The issues that once united the US and China, as Professor Yuan stressed, such as opposition to the Soviet Union in the 1970s, economic interdependence in the 1990s, or counterterrorism in the 2000s, have all faded into history. It is becoming harder and harder for the US and China to establish a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship, as both countries have continued to be, first and foremost, competitors.

A New Beginning?

The Xi-Obama summit has been regarded as a good salve for strategic mistrust. For the first time in history, China seemed to have come round to the idea of a deepening of military-to-military relations, something that the US has long been pushing for, as this remains the weakest area of cooperation between both countries. Visits and dialog between the US and Chinese militaries are routinely the first engagements to be cancelled and the last to be resumed, usually at the request of Beijing, whenever relations take a dive. President Obama disclosed that the next stop would be to “institutionalize and regularize” communication between the two militaries, preventing political blips from derailing the entire relationship.

The US has also agreed to keep China informed about the progress of its closed-door TPP negotiations. Right before the summit, spokespeople from China’s ministries of commerce and foreign affairs implied that China would consider the possibility of joining the negotiations.

Headway has also seemingly been made on the issue of North Korea. According to the White House website, Mr Dolinon noted that the two leaders agreed on identifying the issue as “a key area for enhanced cooperation,” and that both “stressed the importance of continuing to apply pressure” to Pyongyang. Many observers have noticed that denuclearization has replaced stability as the overarching goal of China’s Korea policy.

However, optimism has been muted. It was not until six years after Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to Beijing that China and the US finally established diplomatic ties. Strategic reassurances ruling out military conflict is only the bottom line. Real cooperation and management of competition, Professor Jin said, will be much harder to secure.

The bilateral annual strategic economic dialogue, the most important negotiation platform on nearly all tough bilateral issues, is scheduled for July. This summit is widely regarded as the first big test for Xi’s promised “new power relations.”

The US has realized it has to concede some of its rule-making power to rising powers, particularly China, and China has made it clear it is ready to play a more active role in global governance. However, the structure of power and responsibility sharing remains at the mercy of bilateral competition. The ultimate result, according to Professor Li, will depend on how strong both China and the US are in the future.

Presidents do not dictate relations. While President Obama is constantly having to fight legislation through Congress, President Xi is also having to balance political division between special interest groups with, for the first time in history, public opinion and the power of the Internet. Besides that, Professor Yuan highlighted, other emerging powers such as Russia and India, also have to be taken into consideration.

As with all things, history will have the final say.

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