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Foreign Policy

The Future of China-US Relations After the Hu-Obama Summit

Feb 14 , 2011

The January 19, 2011 White House summit between Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao was of considerable international significance. There is no more high-stakes relationship in the world today, or since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Sino-American relationship has just endured its worst year in more than two decades, experiencing frictions in virtually every arena: economically, politically, diplomatically, militarily, culturally, regionally, and globally.

The atrophy has been alarming to many observers, not the least of which are Asian nations fearing they may be caught in the middle of a newly bipolarized region. Relations stabilized somewhat over the two months in the run-up to the summit, as both governments engaged in ministerial level exchanges aimed at producing a better atmosphere. But, immediately before President Hu arrived in Washington, the American side set the tone for the summit through a series of high profile speeches by Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Treasury Geithner, Secretary of Defense Gates, and Secretary of Commerce Locke—each of whom put down markers on expected Chinese behavior in a broad range of policy areas. They all implied that if the relationship is to develop positively and cooperatively into the future, it is primarily China’s responsibility to meet American expectations.

Thus, going into this summit, the American side played the role of proactive demandeur, putting China on the defensive.As Secretary of State Clinton noted twice in her recent speech, the Sino-American relationship has reached a “critical juncture.” For it to progress, Clinton said, “it is up to both of us to meet our respective global responsibilities and obligations.” While she explicitly rejected the concept of a “G-2” duumvirate and stated “we must avoid unrealistic expectations that can be disappointed,” the Secretary of State nonetheless once again extended America’s hand to China to become a cooperative global partner.

This is the same vision that President Obama offered during his state visit to Beijing in November 2009 and President George W. Bush’s administration also proposed with the concept of China becoming a “responsible international stakeholder.”  At the 2009 summit, the two sides even codified the vision in a visionary Joint Statement. Immediately thereafter, however, the vision was stillborn as the relationship deteriorated over a series of issues and disputes.

Thus, once again, the U.S. and China met against the backdrop of American expectations for China to step up and be the kind of actor Washington desires: upholding the postwar liberal order and institutions; putting pressure on North Korea and Iran to halt their nuclear programs; adhering fully to World Trade Organization requirements for an open economy; appreciating and making convertible the Chinese currency; eliminating intellectual property theft; combatting international terrorism, piracy, and proliferation of missiles and nuclear materiel; meeting international standards of military transparency; acting peacefully in the Asia-Pacific region; tackling greenhouse gas emissions; adhering to international (OECD) donor standards for aid to developing countries; and adhering to United Nations human rights obligations. These and other markers were identified by senior American officials in recent days in the run-up to the summit.

The summit itself went very well—better than many observers expected—from what could be discerned from the public events. The summit also resulted in another detailed (41 point) Joint Statement issued by the two sides. But will this new document immediately founder as did the 2009 one—or will the two sides be able to forge common purpose in the future? The bilateral relationship has definitely stabilized following the summit, but how long can the new stability endure?

Try as it may to encourage China to be a proactive global partner, Washington will likely again be disappointed by China’s reluctance to act on the world stage as the US side seeks. Beijing is simply not ready for “prime time” as a major world power. It still narrowly pursues its national interests globally (the acquisition of raw materials, energy supplies, trade and investment), but does not shoulder its diplomatic responsibilities commensurately. China is a global actor but not yet a global power. It remains a classic insular, defensive realist state. It has certainly benefitted from the global liberal order, but it does not seem assume a responsibility to enforce it.  It continues to prefer a policy of “free riding” and harbors profound ambivalence about the whole concept of “global governance”—viewing it as yet one more trap laid by Washington to retard China’s growth and subvert the CCP’s grip on political power.

Thus, it would seem that Washington may have, once again, set itself up for more disappointment from Beijing in the 2011 summit—but at least, this time, U.S. officials have thrown down the “opportunity gauntlet”: very clearly setting out the terms and expectations for a productive Sino-American relationship.  Perhaps the new and more positive tone in relations achieved at the summit will translate into limited and selective cooperation on global issues—limited cooperation is better than no cooperation. But Beijing needs to reexamine its global equities and engage in greater cooperation with Western and Asian nations, in order to contribute to the global “public goods” from which all nations (not the least of which is China) benefit.

Thus the test of the summit will be evident over the coming months. Hopefully, Beijing will turn a more cooperative face to Asia and the world in 2011 than it did in 2009-2010.

David Shambaugh is Professor and Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, and a nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

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