During the past few weeks, President Xi Jinping and Barack Obama said all the right things in their joint and separate comments on the recent China-U.S. presidential summit in Washington. Xi got to talk about “win-win cooperation,” avoiding the “Thucydides Trap” and his desire for progress toward building a new model of great power relations between Beijing and Washington. For his part, Obama was able to eschew that term, which alarms U.S. allies whose security rests on U.S. defense of the traditional relationship, and emphasize achievements in climate change, maritime security, and socioeconomic dialogue.
There were some timely concessions by both sides. Xi said that China would not seek to exclude the United States from Asia, as implied in his May 2014 CACI “Asia for Asians” speech, and said China wanted to improve the existing world order rather than replace it. Obama went ahead with the controversial state visit despite some domestic calls for its cancellation or postponement while, conversely, delaying and perhaps effectively abandoning plans to impose sanctions against China for its cyber hacking of U.S. intellectual property. The White House also trumpeted the Chinese government announcement of new climate-control measures—Beijing will establish a mechanism to trade greenhouse gas emission rights in 2017–as a major achievement.
Nonetheless, there was no evidence that the visit had led to a comprehensive and enduring “strengthening mutual trust” between the two governments. At best, the summit had led to the stabilization of what has been for several years a deteriorating relationship, but it will be hard to sustain this trend in a U.S. election year. Worse still, the meeting did not resolve the major security issues dividing the parties.
For example, the mutual pledges of the two governments not to support industrial cyber espionage, even with its face-saving reciprocity, cannot be enforced due to problems of attribution, which would admittedly present an insuperable obstacle to any formal cyber treaty as well. But what Xi’s statement has done, like the summit itself, is make it more difficult for Obama to impose cyber-related sanctions on China, since Xi has given his word that his government will solve the problem. Doing so would challenge presidential protocol, confirming that Obama does not trust Xi to keep his word.
Although the further delay in sanctioning may benefit Beijing in the short run, in the long run, China’s state-sponsored cyber theft of intellectual property, along with slowing Chinese economic growth as well as Chinese tightening protectionist and internal security measures, risk alienating the U.S. business community, a critical stakeholder in the United States in favor of good bilateral ties even in troubled times.
With respect to the maritime disputes, Xi did say something new at the press conference, which was that, “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the artificial islands that Beijing had constructed in the past year in the South China Sea. However, Xi was adamant that he would uphold China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. There was no suggestion that Beijing would accept the kind of mutual accommodation that worked so well for Beijing in delineating its border with the Russian Federation in the 1990s. Furthermore, the Chinese government has made no commitment not to proceed further with land reclamation.
In addition, the definition of “militarization” is unclear. Like Russia, China has come to rely on its paramilitary capabilities to advance its presence in contested regions. The term can also be construed to permit the construction of so-called “dual-use” facilities (like lengthy runways and fortified maritime facilities) that could have military as well as commercial application. On the other side, Vietnam looks set to expand its own island reclamation activities and the U.S. military is preparing, if ordered, to engage in freedom of navigation patrols near the newly constructed artificial islands.
One area where Washington and Beijing need to move from words to actions is their cooperation regarding Afghanistan, which thus far has been limited to training Afghan diplomats and co-organizing some peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government. The Taliban’s capture of the northern city of Kunduz represents a major symbolic victory for the insurgents since it is the first provincial capital that they have taken since 2001. More disturbing for Beijing, its capture gives the Taliban direct access to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian states and potentially Xinjiang. Since the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to conclude in 2016, China needs to provide greater support for the Afghan government, which views China as an important regional partner along with the United States.
The Chinese-U.S. efforts to promote peace in Afghanistan have encountered many challenges, the most recent being the announcement of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, which has led to visible divisions in the movement over their negotiating a possible peace settlement with the Kabul government. The growing influence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan could pressure Taliban leaders to take a harder line to prevent defections to the new group but it could also induce them to moderate their policies to outflank the Islamic State by joining forces with other Afghan opponents of the extremists. Beijing and Washington have a shared interest in promoting the latter outcome.
The summit hopefully reduced the greatest near-term danger in China-U.S. relations—that of a grave misunderstanding leading to actual conflict. The Pentagon and the PLA are expanding their range of crisis and confidence-building measures and de-confliction protocols, and for good reason since a growing number of Chinese warships and warplanes are operating in the same geographic area as their U.S. counterparts. The two governments also agreed to expand their dialogue over civilian space issues, which may allow for discussion of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. This has been an issue of considerable concern for the United States and other countries after China destroyed a satellite in 1997, generating an enormous debris cloud that continues to this day to threaten civilian space objects. Unfortunately, the absence of senior PLA participation at last month’s summit leaves unclear whether the Chinese military supports these new measures.
Looking ahead, the Chinese economic slowdown and the impending power transition in Washington complicate everybody’s calculations about how fast China’s power and influence in Asia will grow and whether these trends will, as with Japan in the 1990s, prove transient. For now, however, it is clear that President Xi is more powerful domestically than any U.S. leader could ever be, so it would be easier for him to make the policy course adjustments—a less assertive stance over contested territories and a more responsible approach to cyber stealing—required to avoid a great power collision between Beijing and Washington.