It will be some time before the full consequences of the California summit meeting between US President Barack Obama and China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, are revealed. Nixon-Mao it was not. Nevertheless, the well-timed and much-needed unscripted discussion focused on fundamental questions about the US-China relationship which has reached a new level of tension because of mutual distrust and suspicion.
Xi rightly observed during a preparatory meeting with senior US officials that the US-China relationship, arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world, is at a “critical juncture.” But based on the eight hours of meetings, the "new model of relations" which both leaders pledged to create remains a largely aspirational goal.
On the explosive issue of cybersecurity, especially the cybertheft of US intellectual property, the summit's achievement was to stress to Xi the priority of the issue, and as outgoing US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told reporters, place it “at the center of the relationship.”
In what may prove the most notable outcome of the meeting, Washington and Beijing appeared to move closer on North Korea, agreeing that neither would accept a nuclear North Korea. Beijing is the chief provider of energy and food to the North. Prior to Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February, China has appeared to place stability on the Korean Peninsula above the nuclear issue. The Obama-Xi summit may have established a basis for closer coordination in managing the nuclear problem and perhaps the eventual reunification of Korea as well.
If so, such cooperation may help melt the underlying mutual distrust that permeates the relationship. For Beijing, there is fear that the US posture in Asia is designed to "contain" a rising China; for the US, a fear that China seeks to deny the US a preponderant role in the Pacific, there is little evidence that the summit has put the relationship on a more positive path.
Since 1972, eight presidents, from Richard Nixon to Obama, have pursued a remarkably consistent policy toward China, cooperating where possible and seeking to manage differences. But the relationship may be at a tipping point: The current bilateral relationship as presently constituted is no longer sustainable. Over the course of this decade it will almost certainly either tilt toward being more cooperative or more competitive, toward more collaborative efforts to address global problems and manage regional security in the Pacific or toward confrontation. The direction it drifts toward will go a long way to determining the future shape of the global system. Can new equilibrium in US-China relations, what Xi calls “a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century,” be attained?
Shirtsleeves, schmoozing and long walks can help create familiarity between leaders that could prove helpful in a crisis. Better communication at the top can minimize misunderstandings. But at the end of the day, it is interests and to some extent values, not personalities, that shape a relationship. The world’s two largest economies, the world’s largest creditor and its largest debtor, the two largest energy consumers and Pacific powers, are deeply intertwined. Yet tensions over cybersecurity, trade, currency manipulation, China’s assertive behavior toward territorial disputes in East Asia and, not least, differences in values between a democracy and an authoritarian one-party state have steadily deepened mutual distrust and suspicion.
It is not, as Obama has rightly pointed out, that a rising power like China and an established power like the US are destined to clash, like Athens and Sparta in ancient times or Britain and Germany a century ago. After all, no country has benefited more from integrating itself into the US-led global system over the past 35 years than China. Since 1980 China’s economy has grown from $202.5 billion to roughly $7 trillion. Despite complaints about playing by rules of the international economic and political system that it did not write, China has been a major beneficiary. Much as it derides the US security alliances in East Asia, the US security guarantor role has provided the stability under which China has prospered.
At bottom, there is a mismatch in perceptions, which if not altered could overwhelm the relationship. For example, the Chinese blame the so-called “rebalancing” by the US for rising tensions in East Asia. The view of China’s leaders is through the prism of a victim narrative reflecting an era past.
Thus, rather than US Asia policy being one largely of continuity – enhancing alliances and security partnerships, deepening economic and diplomatic engagement – Beijing sees a US decision to contain China. Even the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the nascent trade accord which China theoretically could join, is viewed as an effort to isolate China. “The Obama administration’s rebalancing toward Asia has to be singled out as a cataclysmic strategic move,” wrote Minghao Zhao, an analyst at a think tank of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee.
Rather than seeing that nations from India to Vietnam are looking to the US as a counterweight to a China asserting an ever larger footprint in the Asia-Pacific, Beijing is confusing US offshore balancing with containment.
For its part, the US focuses on cyberattacks, China’s self-proclaimed efforts to become a maritime power build a modernized nuclear arsenal, and its nearly two decades of double-digit growth in defense spending. Beijing’s assertive posture in the East and South China seas are raising questions about China’s intentions.
Current reality is a kind of mirror-imaging, with the military-industrial complexes in both Washington and Beijing driving a strategic competition cycle of action-reaction. The Pentagon fears China is pursuing an anti-access strategy to curb the US role in the Pacific; the People’s Liberation Army fears the US seeks to contain China and deny Beijing its rightful role as a dominant actor in the Pacific.
Both sides must get past this. A new type of relationship requires Washington and Beijing to find a balance of interests. Each must come to terms with how the other treats its core interests. The problem is that Beijing views its “core interests” in 19th-century terms – territory, boundaries, sovereignty, while Washington’s core interests are focused on unimpeded access to the global commons – freedom of navigation on land, sea and cyberspace. Thus, Beijing complains about US arms sales to Taiwan or visits by the Dali Lama while Washington is concerned about anti-access to US naval forces in the Pacific, cyberspace violations and anti-satellite efforts.
Reaching new understandings on respective core interests is a central challenge.
The current centerpiece of the US-China relationship, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, has become too large and unwieldy, too much a “check the box” exercise. The Obama-Xi summit was necessary to reinvigorate the relationship. Both leaders would do well to define a new type of relationship by giving priority to a few key issues that can redefine the relationship: developing rules and a code of conduct for cyberspace; agreeing on the respective US and Chinese security postures in East Asia; and demonstrating real cooperation on a big strategic issue such as North Korea.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. This piece first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.
Photo credit: Pete Souza / White House