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China-US Relations: Ripe for Rivalry?

China Policy Institute Blog 2015-09-21

China’s President Xi Jinping is flying to the United States to mark the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations‘ founding, and will meet US President Barack Obama at the White House during his week-long visit between September 22 and 28. This will be Xi’s first state visit to the United States as President. Xi and Obama are expected to talk on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues that are of mutual interest.

The Xi-Obama summit comes at a crucial moment in China-US relations. In recent years, the two countries have become increasingly disillusioned with each other, and talk of strategic competition is on the rise. From the US perspective, China has become more dissatisfied and aggressive, even though China has been the greatest beneficiary of the existing international order that the US helped create. President Xi’s new concept of Asian Security, which he discussed in 2014 at CICA; China’s efforts to establish the BRICS Bank; the AIIB; and the “One Belt, One Road” economic initiatives; together with an “assertive” foreign policy in the East and South China Seas and the hacking of US federal personnel databases, are understood to be clear evidence of an increasingly ungrateful, assertive, and dissatisfied power bent on dislodging US influence and the order it created in Asia.

For China’s part, it sees an increasingly unfriendly America, to say the least. Since the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, the US has taken a series of steps to encircle China. It has strengthened its relations with Asian allies, expanded its security partnerships in Asia, steadily moved down the path of “taking sides” instead of “taking no position” in the East and South China Seas maritime disputes, and put forward the TPP to offset the economic influence China has cultivated in the past decade.

Against this backdrop, what can Xi and Obama do during the summit to offset this downturn in China-US relations? And what can be expected of China-US relations in general?

The good news is that neither China nor the US wants to see their relations go down the road of strategic rivalry. President Xi has said time and again that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for China and the US to live peacefully together, among others, and that he doesn’t believe in the “Thucydides Trap” of a rising power fighting against an established power. Instead, he proposed that a new model of China-US relations be established, based on the principles of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win results.” President Obama has also repeatedly said that the US welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China and that it does not aim at containing China.

In addition, as the two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and the US have a broad, common interest in cooperating. Climate change, global epidemics, poverty reduction, WMD proliferation, high seas piracy, regional stability, etc., are all areas in which China and the US can and should cooperate so as to bring about global benefits.

While these common interests do not guarantee smooth China-US relations, they serve as important stepping stones for more constructive relations instead of fierce competition. The following are some steps that Xi and Obama can take to reverse the negative trends in China-US relations.

First, Xi and Obama should have frank, open, and deep discussions on any issues that are outstanding between the two countries. They should talk frankly to each other about the issues that are of most concern to the other side, be it order in East Asia, maritime disputes, cyber security, military modernization, or economic situations.

Second, Xi and Obama should emphasize the common interests the two countries have in dealing with a range of regional and global issues. As the largest developing country and developed country respectively, China and the US have a stake in cooperating to deal with transnational and global issues. Xi and Obama should emphasize their common interests, and their intention to cooperate. They can show the world that they’re not doomed to be rivals to be guarded against, but likely partners to work with.

Third, Xi and Obama should try their best to achieve some concrete results during their summit. This will no doubt be the last state-visit summit between Xi and Obama before US politics enters the presidential election cycle, and it is perhaps the last chance the two leaders will have to sit down, talk and take concrete steps to improve bilateral relations. Among the issues that have great ripple effects on China-US relations are maritime disputes in the South China Sea and cyber security. Xi and Obama should reach some kind of preliminary agreement at least on cyber security, and take measures to stabilize the situation in the South China Sea.

Fourth, Xi and Obama should take measures to strengthen China-US economic relations. Despite the ups and downs, economic relations have been a stabilizing force in the context of broader China-US relations. However, in recent years, both in China and the US, there have been voices questioning the wisdom of close economic ties between the two countries, and some even argue for economic decoupling. Even those who hope for better China-US economic relations have begun complaining about the unfair treatment they come across. Some US companies complain that China’s commercial environment is not as friendly to them as it used to be, and Chinese companies complain that they are not provided with a level playing field in the US, especially in the area of investment. The two heads should take these complaints seriously and take measures to address them as quickly as possible.

This summit is an opportunity for the two leaders to show the world that China and the US are not doomed to strategic rivalry or to a new Cold War, and that a more constructive and healthy relationship can be expected.