US President Barack Obama comes to China for his second official visit as well as to attend the 2014 summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). A review of the developments in the region in recent years, however, has shown some worrying signs in China-US relations despite China’s efforts to solve it.
The United States’ aggressive “pivot to Asia” strategy has prompted concern over a potential conflict between the rising and established global powers. To avoid such a conflict, China initiated the idea of a “new type of major power relationship” in 2013 and has been trying to agree on a framework with the US on how best to establish such a bilateral relationship.
During his first official visit to China in 2009, Obama joined Chinese President Hu Jintao in issuing a Joint Statement, in which China acknowledged the US as a Pacific power for the first time. However, the Obama administration has since made a series of provocative moves, such as pushing the “pivot to Asia” strategy and announcing a plan to deploy 60 percent of its military forces (especially naval forces) in Pacific Asia, all of which has prompted China to accuse the “external big power” of meddling in Asia’s security affairs. Beijing says the US’ moves have complicated regional disputes and caused tension in the region.
The US has been strengthening its relationships with its Asia-Pacific allies, especially Japan, South Korea and Australia, in a bid to confront the so-called “China threat.”
The US played a leading role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, excluding China, to set rules for trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region. The exclusion of China means that the largest economy in Asia Pacific would have no say in the setting of the region’s rules of the game.
At the fourth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia held in May in Shanghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a “a new concept of security” and called for an establishment of a “new security order” in Asia. He argued that security in Asia should be managed by Asians.
Washington interpreted many of China’s major policies and actions in foreign relations as “challenges” to the American hegemony, or the current regional order dominated by the US. For instance, China proposed setting up an Asia Infrastructural Investment Bank for improving infrastructure in the Asia Pacific, but it met with strong opposition from Washington and Tokyo. South Korea and Australia were forced to suspend their participation. China did not intend to challenge the US when it made the proposal. In fact, by establishing the bank, China will have to take on a greater duty to contribute more international public goods, and the bank will be a complement to the current international financing institutions, such as the Work Bank and the Asia Development Bank.
Excluded from the TPP talks, China is seeking other ways to promote free trade in Asia Pacific, as well as across the world. Turning to Asia-Europe relations, China proposed to build a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” and a “Continental Silk Road Economic Belt” and urged the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to “enter into a new stage.” Beijing also made an effort to upgrade its “strategic partnership” with the European Union.
All these developments have cast a gloom over relations between China and the US. They are in direct contradiction to China’s wish for a “non-confrontational” relationship with the US.
Contending and conflict are not in the interests of either China or US. The “new round of global turmoil” makes it more necessary for the two countries to cooperate with each other.
First, they need to strengthen cooperation over the Korean Peninsula. They need to work together to denuclearize North Korea, which is expected to be among the top topics when Obama meets his Chinese counterpart in the forthcoming visit. A consensus between the two sides will help restart the Six-Party Talks.
Sino-US dialogue is unavoidable if the Korean problem is to be settled, for any major development on the Korean peninsula would lead to significant geopolitical consequences. South Korea recently acquired a status of “middle power,” providing the Republic of Korea a confidence in unifying the Korean nation. The Park Geun-hye administration has set up a “preparatory committee for unification” in a move to give top priority to the cause of unifying the nation among all of Seoul’s domestic and foreign undertakings.
Second, Sino-US cooperation is also vital for establishing a new order in the Asia Pacific.
Currently, a pessimistic point of view is widespread among American scholars. They lament that the obsolete US-led unipolar world order has been replaced by an “era of disorder”. Both Henry Kissinger, who has recently published The World Order, and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, made similar remarks. In my opinion, however, the emergence of some form of disorder is unavoidable after the American hegemony lost steam. The attempt to restore American dominance is unwanted and will come to no avail. The world needs a new order, which is much more desirable than a disorganized world. The whole world should make a concerted effort to establish a new order for the 21st century. Washington should welcome the new global order rather than indulge in the nostalgia for a unipolar order. It was exactly out of the intention to establish the new world order that China put forward the ideas about a “new type of major power relationship”, a “new concept of security” and a “new Asia Pacific”.
According to a recent international study, which I took part in, the world is seeing a historical power shift (as evidenced by the rise of more big powers) and spread (as evidenced by the spawning of non-state actors). The study argues that major global powers, including the US and China, should act in a “21st century concert of powers” on the issue of international security. Such a concert of major powers can be launched in the Asia Pacific first, joined by the US and China. The Six Party Talks aimed at Korean Peninsula denuclearization is a useful framework for such a concert of the major powers in the region.
Besides the issue of security, the economy is still the main field over which China and the US need to cooperate. The theme of the 2014 APEC is “Shaping the Future through an Asia-Pacific Partnership.” China is making efforts to prevent Asia Pacific from splitting and working for regional integration. During his stay in China, Obama needs to reaffirm the US’ commitment to an open and inclusive Asia-Pacific community and answer such questions as to what kind of a relationship the US-led TPP intends to maintain with China, and why the world’s second largest economy is excluded from the making of the region’s economic game rules.
Excluding China from the TPP is shortsighted behavior. When APEC was initiated, former US Secretary of State James Baker rightfully said: “The US is not to allow a ‘line to be drawn down the middle of the Pacific’.” It was reported that leaders of the TPP members will meet in Beijing while attending the current APEC meetings. This move will undoubtedly further irk China. Washington should take the matter seriously with a long-term strategic view.