A New Chapter in US-China Relations?

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have just concluded a two-day summit, which was described by U.S. officials as positive and constructive. The summit, held at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, just outside Palm Springs, was the first meeting between the two men since Xi became president in March. Both he and Obama highlighted the fact that their meeting took place sooner than initially planned—a testament, they said, to their recognition of the importance of good relations between the two countries.

From the start, the White House insisted that the purpose of the meetings was not to announce new deals—‘deliverables’, in diplomatic language—but to create a more comfortable relationship between Obama and Xi, to facilitate communication and to avoid plunging the two nations into escalating tension.

Ironically, during a news conference at the summit it was not Xi Jinping on the defensive against allegations of state infringement on the civil liberties of its citizens, but Obama.

The summit comes after a period marked by worrying signs of deterioration in U.S.-China relations. Particularly significant, in this context, has been China’s growing regional assertiveness and the recent U.S. ‘pivot’ towards Asia. For the most part, the pivot has been military in character—including the deployment of new weapons systems, the strengthening of America’s military alliances with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and the stationing of marines in northern Australia. The non-military dimension of the Asian ‘pivot’ has been the initiative for a new trade and investment bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has reinforced Beijing’s perceptions that the U.S. is seeking to contain China in its own backyard.

In spite of recent tensions, however, the history of the U.S.-China relationship offers some encouragement. In one of the most inspired diplomatic initiatives of the past century, the Nixon-Kissinger rapprochement with China in the early 1970’s transformed relations between Washington and Beijing. And since then, notwithstanding a series of problems and moments of tension, the relationship between the United States and China has remained essentially stable. Now, though, there is a new challenge: the two states need to redefine their relationship in a situation in which China is becoming increasingly influential in international affairs.

In this context, it is an encouraging sign that at the summit the two leaders appeared to see eye to eye on at least some issues. In particular, they reached at least one concrete accord that environmentalists welcomed as a potentially significant step in combating climate change. Thus, China and the United States agreed for the first time to partner on reducing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerants and industrial applications.  According to some experts, a global phase-down of HFCs could eliminate more heat-trapping gases by 2050 than the United States emits in an entire decade.

Importantly, the two leaders also found areas of agreement over North Korea, which, under pressure from China, has muted a wave of bellicose statements after nuclear and missile tests earlier this year. After suspending nearly all contact with South Korea, the North has more recently reversed course, agreeing to hold the first high-level meeting with South Korea since 2007.

President Obama’s administration has praised China’s new assertiveness vis-à-vis its neighbor and ally. The hope in Washington is that this shift reflects a new calculation in Beijing that a constant state of crisis on the Korean Peninsula is destabilizing and thus undesirable for the Chinese as well. The two presidents held a long discussion on this topic over dinner on Friday, reportedly agreeing that North Korea has to denuclearize, and that their two nations would work together to achieve that through pressure on Pyongyang.

If the summit does lead to systematic cooperation between China and the U.S. on these issues, it could indeed constitute an important step in establishing a new, more constructive relationship between Beijing and Washington. Importantly, it could also provide the foundation upon which the two capitals could build trust and establish common ‘rules of game’ for working together in other areas.

But on one important issue the two leaders seemed unable to reach agreement. When it came to American accusations that Chinese corporations linked to the military were guilty of systematic cyber intrusions and had stolen U.S. military and economic secrets as well as intellectual property in cyberspace, the two sides seemed to speak past each other. The Chinese delegation insisted that Beijing strongly opposed hacking and cyberespionage, and was itself a victim of such acts; while U.S. officials warned that  China’s cyber-behaviour was to a threat to the spirit of partnership that Obama and Xi publicly declared they wanted.

For President Obama, talks about cyber security come at a particularly awkward time, given the recent media revelations that, within the framework of the Prism Program, the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting massive amounts of data—including by using American internet companies to obtain information that includes the content of emails and online files of numerous individuals.  Consequently (and ironically), during a news conference at the summit it was not Xi Jinping on the defensive against allegations of state infringement on the civil liberties of its citizens, but Obama.

Predictably, the latter sought to distinguish between the NSA actions and China’s alleged cyber intrusions, saying that the two issues were separate and distinct. This is true—and it is also true that there is no equivalence between the U.S. and China when it comes to the protection of basic freedoms.  Nevertheless, Prism can be seen as yet another illustration of the tension between America’s stated commitment to the protection of individual rights and some of the actual practices enacted by Washington in the name of security after 9/11. More broadly, the Prism program is likely to hamstring the U.S. when it seeks to set global norms for internet freedom and privacy—just as the continued existence of the Guantánamo prison camp makes it more difficult for Washington to protect its image as a champion of universal standards for basic human rights.

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