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For Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, a pause, not a turning point

For now, Obama and Xi have given their best shot to stabilising ties. But the long-term outlook for US-China remains cloudy.

Written by Minxin Pei | Updated: October 3, 2015 12:00:18 am
The long-term outlook for US-China relations remains cloudy. It is uncertain whether the commitments and agreements at the summit will be honoured. The long-term outlook for US-China relations remains cloudy. It is uncertain whether the commitments and agreements at the summit will be honoured.

Scoring summits of great powers is a game of expectations. In trying to assess the outcomes of the just-concluded US-China summit in Washington, it is important to keep in mind that the expectations were not very high before Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Washington on September 24.

So it should be no surprise that the relatively low expectations helped make the Barack Obama-Xi Jinping summit a success, at least in the narrow sense that it went well and the two countries made some progress in calming their troubled ties. On the most vexing issue of cyber security, Washington and Beijing have taken the first step towards writing some basic rules of the game.

Obama and Xi announced a “common understanding” and pledged to ban commercial cyber espionage aimed at the theft of intellectual property. Two working groups, one consisting of technical experts and another of high-level officials, will start meeting regularly. To be sure, it is not a foregone conclusion that the Obama-Xi understanding will instantly change Chinese behaviour in cyberspace. Aside from the difficulty of establishing binding rules and verification regimes, the US and China are not barred by this understanding from conducting their conventional espionage activities in cyberspace, a practice that could again generate tensions since many commercial entities in both countries also engage in defence-related businesses.

But for now, the contentious cyber espionage issue seems to have been defused. One cannot, however, say the same about the South China Sea dispute. Xi appeared to have dug in his heels. The only concession he has made is that China will not seek to “militarise” the artificial islands it has built.

As in the case of cyber security, China’s commitment not to “militarise” its artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea is open to different interpretations, thus creating real risks of potential conflict. An obvious example is the construction of airstrips and other facilities that have direct military applications, as China is now doing. Even though China may refrain, for the time being at least, from deploying troops or military assets on these islands, these construction activities could be seen by the US as breaching Xi’s pledge.

The most important — and unexpected — achievement of the summit was cooperation on climate change. Xi pleasantly surprised Obama by announcing that China would, starting in 2017, implement a cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The US and China also signed a joint statement on climate action, reiterating their respective commitments and pledging cooperation in clean energy and transportation. For Obama, Xi’s announcement was undoubtedly a political gift. Not only will it improve the chances of success at the UN climate conference in Paris

in December, but it will also strengthen Obama’s case that the US should act more aggressively on climate change. One of the excuses used by opponents of proactive policies on climate change is that the US should not unilaterally shoulder the economic costs of such policies so long as China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, refuses to cap or cut its emissions. In the wake of Xi’s announcement, this argument sounds less persuasive.

There are many reasons for China to pick Xi’s visit to Washington to make such a momentous pledge. One of them is to gain goodwill from Obama, for whom action on climate change has been a top priority. Washington appeared to reciprocate by announcing an effective truce with China on

the issue of the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). When China was trying to set up the bank, the US lobbied its allies, albeit without success, not to join. During the summit, the US announced that it would cooperate with the AIIB even though it is not a formal member.

Despite the appearance of a successful summit, we must be realistic about its impact. For two countries that see each other as long-term threats, this summit is not a turning point in their relations. US-China strategic competition will continue. However, as ties between Washington and Beijing have been on a downward spiral for the last two years, this summit did result in a welcome pause. If nothing else, both countries now have greater short-term incentives to exercise restraint and avoid acts that could resume the dangerous descent of their relations.

The long-term outlook for US-China relations remains cloudy. It is uncertain whether the commitments and agreements at the summit will be honoured. If the Chinese military persists in its cyber intrusions against US companies in the belief that they are legitimate targets due to their contracts from the Pentagon, the Obama administration will have no choice but to respond in kind. The South China Sea will continue to be a source of tensions. The White House is under pressure from all sides to send military aircraft and vessels into the 12-mile zone to contest Chinese sovereignty claims. And continuing Chinese activities on islands already reclaimed will effectively make them military facilities in all but name.

Most worryingly, the summit had no impact on the underlying adversarial dynamic driving the US and China further apart. China’s growing military strength, expanding economic influence, regional aspirations in Asia, and instinct to flex its muscles run counter to America’s vital geopolitical interest in preserving Asia’s balance of power and ensuring a strong China abides by international laws and norms. Coupled with their mutual strategic distrust rooted in the ideological conflict between one-party rule and democracy, American and Chinese long-term interests are not just incompatible, but also prone to constant clashes.

But for now, we can breathe a sigh of relief that Obama and Xi have given their best shot to stabilising US-China ties and, judging by their Washington summit, may have succeeded beyond their own expectations.

The writer is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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