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Foreign Policy

Xi-Obama Summit and China at the UN: Changing the World Order for the Better

Oct 05 , 2015

Following President Xi’s recent visit to the U.S., Xi’s concept of “a new model of great power relations” seems to be back on the China-U.S. agenda. Originally pushed by Xi and now being reconsidered by Obama, this concept suggests a major turning point for both countries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) during their talks in Washington D.C., the United States, Sept. 25, 2015. (Xinhua/Lan Hongguang)

Last week’s meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and President Obama could go down in history as the most important and transformational geopolitical event since the 1986 meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan that ushered in an end of the Cold War.

Followed by Xi’s representation of China at the meetings and events in New York commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and his presentation to the U.N. General Assembly, what has now come clearly into focus is a new world order in which China has already established itself and won credibility as a leader, contributor, and defender of global peace, security and order.

It is no exaggeration to say that Xi’s state visit to the United States was a triumph for Xi and China, exceeding almost all expectations in quality and quantity of content.

Beginning with the business-focused stopover in Seattle and capped by the two working dinners—a private dinner followed by the star-studded (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg attending with his pregnant Chinese-American wife) official White House dinner—together with the three hour working meeting, President Xi’s visit was serious, deeply substantive, and informed by “new world order” symbolism and substance.

Striking to followers of China-U.S. relations was Xi’s robustly self-assured promotion of the concept of a “new model of great power relations.” This concept was advanced by Xi during the May 2013 Sunnylands Summit with Obama. The essential elements of it are avoidance of conflict, respect for core interests, and search for constructive, win-win approaches to solving problems.

At the UN, Xi expanded China’s purview to the search for a new model of international relations. While relations between great powers should be guided by the conflict avoidance, mutual respect, and win-win approach of the “new model,” relations between great powers (including China) and small countries should be guided by one of the tenets of the United Nations: sovereign equality. China, said Xi, will treat all countries, and small countries in particular, as equals.

A further, deeply meaningful and politically powerful pledge made by Xi at the UN: In its capacities and conduct in UN affairs, China will always and forever comport herself as a developing country.

After the Sunnylands Summit, the Obama administration briefly seemed interested in pursuing China’s proposal of “a new model of great power relations.” Soon, however, conservative vested-interest influenced voices in the State Department, NSC, and Department of Defense began raising objections. The biggest objection was the possible weakening of the credibility of American defense commitments to “allies and friends” (read: in particular, Japan, the Philippines, and even Vietnam), as well as to the presumption of (perpetual and unchallenged) American “leadership” (read: effective “liberal hegemony”) in Asia.

After about a year, when discussing China-U.S. affairs, American officials stopped referring to or even mentioning Xi’s concept of “a new model of great power relations.”

However, following Xi’s recent visit to the U.S., the concept seems to be back on the China-U.S. agenda. Originally pushed by Xi and now being reconsidered by Obama, this concept suggests a major turning point: namely, that the United States has finally accepted and reconciled itself to the idea that a genuine accommodation of China’s rise is inevitable, necessary, and can and should be managed strategically in a way that produces positive outcomes for America’s vital interests.

At the same time, what really constitute American vital interests are being re-examined in the strategic context of the reality of Chinese power, China’s willingness and ability to accept both regional and global leadership roles, and the centrality of U.S.-China relations.

In short, China’s steady rise in hard and soft power; its responsible, fundamentally defensive strategies and actions in the realm of national security (its island-building action in the South China Sea should be and increasingly are being seen in this light); its unambiguously non-confrontational, non-conflictual approach in external relations; its concentration on economic and social development for which peace is indispensable—all elements observed to be China’s bedrock national policies, all consistently and effectively articulated by Xi Jinping since his ascension to power, and during his U.S. visit—have made China not only fully eligible for partnership in global leadership with the United States, but made such a partnership indispensable for both countries.

The kind of China-U.S. partnership, or strategic cooperation, possible has been demonstrated in China’s vital role among the powers that negotiated the denuclearization agreement with Iran. Even more critical in the Asian context will be China’s role in dealing with North Korea and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

To credit and commend the analysis of contributor Donald Kirk, posted September 25 under the title “Obama-Xi Summit Trade-Off: China’s Power Over N. Korea, South China Sea.” Writes Kirk:

“President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping made an implicit trade-off in their White House summit….The U.S. side of the bargain, in language you won’t see in any formal statement, goes like this: You keep North Korea from doing anything crazy, and we won’t stop you from whatever you’re doing in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

“The Chinese side of the bargain is just as basic: We’ll do what we can to talk the North Koreans out of launching a long-range missile or conducting a fourth nuclear test, and we won’t build military bases in the Spratlys.”

This is the kind of strategic, national interest-oriented cooperation that should be occurring between the world’s two most important powers. A “new model of great power relations” is taking shape, slowly and painstakingly, but surely nonetheless, and generally along the contours drawn by China.

President Xi’s visit was indeed transformational and positively productive. At a hopeful turning point, world history is being made.

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