China-US relations were generally stable in 2016. On his last presidential visit to China, US President Barack Obama had his eighth meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Hangzhou. Over more than five hours, they had in-depth discussion about bilateral, regional and global topics of concern. They affirmed the important progress the two parties have achieved in recent years in developing economic and trade ties, coping with climate change, building military exchange and mutual-trust mechanisms, cracking down on cyber crimes, dealing with the Ebola pandemic in Africa, and facilitating a comprehensive political resolution of the Iran nuclear issue. They agreed to constructively manage differences and promote continuous, healthy, steady development of China-US ties. The 35-item Chinese “Checklist of Achievements of the Hangzhou Summit of Chinese and US Heads of State” was a summary of China-US relations during Obama’s two terms of office, as well as a starting point for bilateral ties in a new US presidency.
Over years, Xi and Obama facilitated the countries’ historic partnership in leading the global response to climate change, making it a significant pillar of bilateral ties. After ratifying the Paris Agreement, both leaders have promised to continue taking forceful moves at home to promote transition to green, low-carbon, climate-adaptive economies at both domestic and international levels.
In 2016, all exchange mechanisms between the two countries functioned well. In the past seven years, China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue has proven critical for expanding cooperation, managing differences. The 8th China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue and 7th China-US High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange were held in Beijing on June 6 and 7. In his opening speech, President Xi reviewed progress in endeavors to formulate a new type of major-country relationship, emphasizing adherence to the direction no matter what changes take place in international relations.
Seeing that many Asian countries don’t want to take sides between China and the US, Xi pointed out both countries should cultivate “common rather than mutually exclusive” circles of friends, and be “builders and custodians of regional prosperity and stability”. The dialogue proceeded smoothly, resulting in extensive consensus on issues of common concern.
Military-to-military exchanges continued, and the US side again invited the PLA Navy to participate in the RIMPAC. The Chinese side sent five vessels, three ship-based helicopters, one special warfare detachment, and a diving unit to participate in the drill in Hawaii from June 29 to August 4.
Progress was also made in joint crackdown on cyber crimes. The third high-level dialogue on fighting cyber crimes was held in Washington D.C. on Dec 7. The two sides reached extensive consensus on cracking down on cyber crimes, cooperating on cyber security, improving a hotline mechanism, and cooperating on online anti-terror projects and intelligence sharing. They proposed to hold the fourth dialogue in 2017.
In 2016, the Obama administration continued implementing its “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, muddling the waters in the South China Sea, and decided to deploy the THAAD system in the Republic of Korea, creating new troubles for China-US relations.
The US continued its “freedom of navigation operations”, dispatching fleets to the South China Sea on “patrol” missions, inviting solemn condemnations from China. Taking advantage of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the Philippines-initiated arbitration on July 12, the US mounted pressure on China. Seeing that its conduct has touched China’s bottom line, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed willingness to come into dialogue with China over the South China Sea, the Obama administration had to move to cool things down. On July 25, during their meeting in Vientiane, Laos, US State Secretary John Kerry told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi it was time to turn the page and solve problems by diplomatic means. Tensions over the South China Sea have eased considerably thereafter.
Given Philippine President Duterte’s aversion to US interference in his country’s internal affairs, as well as the Philippines’ strategic position in the South China Sea, Duterte’s policy change proves a heavy blow to the US pivot. Yet the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in particular, is missing no opportunity in the remainder of Obama’s presidency to consolidate the strategy. On Sept 29, aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego, Carter declared US “rebalancing” has entered Phase 3, saying the US will improve the quality of its military presence in the Asia-Pacific, and make the US military the strongest military force in the region.
Another major issue between China and the US in 2016 was the THAAD deployment in South Korea. Persistent tensions on the Korean Peninsula deteriorated in 2016. On Jan 6, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, which Pyongyang claimed was a successful H-bomb test, one that the US believed to mark a major step forward in Pyongyang’s nuclear pursuit. On Feb 7, North Korea launched a satellite using long-rage missile technologies. The US availed itself of the opportunity to trumpet its deployment of THAAD in South Korea. On July 8, US and ROK militaries issued a joint declaration, announcing the system will be put into operation by the end of 2017 at the latest. China resolutely opposed this, stated repeatedly that deploying THAAD in South Korea is not a simple matter of technology, but one of strategy, and its deployment will seriously affect regional stability and China-ROK ties. In response to THAAD, China and Russia conducted their first joint computer-based drill “Space Security 2016” and agreed to hold a second joint anti-missile exercise in 2017.
Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election brought new uncertainties to China-US relations. By receiving the call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on Dec 2, Trump broke a 37-year-old norm in effect since China and the US established diplomatic ties, which has not only raised concerns at home, but received harsh condemnation from China. Spokespersons of both the White House and State Department have repeatedly stated there is no change in the US government’s “one-China” policy. People in both countries are waiting to see whether China-US relationship can transfer smoothly from the Obama presidency to the Trump era.