The year 2013 marks the first year of both the new Chinese leadership and President Obama’s second term. Compared with the three previous years, this year has witnessed a posture of stabilization and growth in China-US relations.
In June, this positive progress was highlighted by the unprecedented informal summit meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. The Sunnylands Summit represented a huge driving force in China-US relations. Immediately after, the fifth round of Strategic and Economic Dialogue also registered positive results. The two countries decided to speed up investment protection negotiations, which may well serve as a strong support to their future economic and trade relations. The military-to-military relationship, the weakest link in bilateral relations for a long time, has rather unexpectedly progressed as well. There have been active high-level exchanges and dialogues such as the visit to China by Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and visits to the US by Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and Commander in Chief of the PLA Navy Wu Shengli. The two militaries held joint military, anti-piracy and anti-terror exercises. And plans are being made for future visits, dialogues, joint exercises and trainings. The two countries also effectively managed the Snowden incident, cyber security disputes and disagreement over the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, not allowing them to hurt the overall relationship. It is fair to say that China-US relations have moved out of the relatively difficult period from 2010 to 2012 and the overall situation is now more relaxing.
Obviously, the relative stability does not mean the sudden disappearance of contradictions and differences that have been present between the two countries for years and even decades. On the contrary, these problems remain. The main reason behind the turn for the better in 2012 lies with the political investments made by the leaders of both countries, especially by the new Chinese leadership. The Chinese side proposed a new model for major country relations and acted to materialize it. Substantive compromises on the bilateral investment protection agreement and strengthened military exchanges are both examples of political will driving China-US relations. In a more far-reaching way, the Chinese leadership’s decision to further deepen reform and opening up will surely provide a solid foundation for the long-term stability and development of bilateral relations.
In a similar effort, the US side started at the end of last year to reflect over the rebalancing strategy of Obama’s first term. As a result, this year’s US external strategy has shown some “re-rebalancing” features with rebalances between military and economic-political means, between US-China relations and US relations with other Asian countries, and the position of the Asia Pacific and Middle East in its overall foreign policy strategy. These changes have made the rebalancing strategy not as aggressive as it was in Obama’s first term, therefore making it more conducive to China-US relations. With a new leadership in office in China and the existence of many problems in bilateral relations, the US side took the initiative to have a Xi-Obama meeting at an earlier date, demonstrating the significance America attaches to its relations with China. These are all American investments in China-US relations. It is quite encouraging that the leaders of both countries are aware of the other’s investments and prompt in making positive responses, such as the responses to the American proposal for a summit and the Chinese proposal for a new model of major country relations.
Leadership attention has been the primary reason behind the stability and progress in China-US relations this year. Such a conclusion seems to imply that the relationship will be confronted with rather severe challenges in 2014. Or will the Chinese and American leaders maintain their investments in bilateral relations?
Next year will be midterm election year in the US. There will be hard fighting between the two parties in Congress over the debt ceiling and other economic issues, forcing the US President to focus his attention on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Moreover, this year’s implementation of the rebalancing strategy has been criticized; even described as “dead” by some people. In November, a speech by Susan Rice, the Naitonal Security Advisor, at Georgetown University showed that the Obama Administration had heard these voices. If the rebalancing strategy is implemented more actively in 2014, will China-US relationship again become a victim? On the Chinese side, even though the Chinese leaders have a serious and earnest desire to have a long-term stable relationship with the US, their continued political investment will be tested if incidents undermining Chinese interests occur. For example, if disputes with Japan over the East China Sea continue escalating and if the US continues showing partiality for Japan, particularly when the security guidelines are “redefined” next year, China-US relations may be impacted. Furthermore, whether the traditional puzzles such as the US President meeting the Dalai Lama and arms sale to Taiwan will resurface and shock Chinese policies towards America is still to be observed.
Chinese leaders oftentimes talk about “viewing the China-US relationship from a strategic height”. They mean that leaders of the two countries need to think beyond specific differences and directly invest in the world’s most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. The level of stability achieved in 2013 has been attributable to the strategic investments made by the leaders. As such stability remains difficult and fragile, it still needs their very careful handling.
Da Wei is Director, Institute of American Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.