At first glance, there is a great deal of convergence between what Chinese President Xi Jinping wanted and what U.S. President Barack Obama sought at their summit last week in California. Dig a little deeper, however, and the differences were every bit as important as those similarities.
While both men wish to put the U.S.-China relationship on a stable path, there is great difference in the way that each seeks to accomplish that important objective. How they reconcile that divergence will have a profound impact on East Asian relations in general, and the U.S.-China relationship in particular.
As they seek that common ground, Japan must not feel threatened. Positive relations between Washington and Beijing do not come at Tokyo’s expense.
Presidents Obama and Xi met in Sunnylands, California, last week to set a tone to the relationship. Historically, such meetings were formal and stolid affairs. Tightly scripted events, there was rarely a real exchange of views between the two leaders. They read talking points, hit their marks and demonstrated to the world — and their respective publics — that the two governments can do business together. The one exception to this pattern was the summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin at Mr. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch at the end of Mr. Jiang’s tenure. Mr. Xi’s readiness to try this sort of summitry early in his term suggests he is a different type of leader and has already mustered power over the Chinese bureaucracy to allow him to engage the U.S. president in such a manner.
Plainly, however, the traditional relationship has limits. Issues of common concern are expanding, and while the two leaderships are increasingly engaged, the two sides more frequently talk at each other rather than with each other.
This meeting, with its informality and its emphasis on acquainting the two men with each other, is designed to change the context in which America and China engage each other. A personal relationship is no substitute for the hard slog of diplomacy, but it can be a cornerstone of constructive bilateral relations.
At this point, differences between the two sides rear their heads. Both governments have studied history. They know that rising powers have traditionally been revisionist powers, challenging the existing political order and the reigning hegemon. Both sides also know that unless carefully tended, such transitions are messy and often violent. The United States and China, and every other country in Asia, have too much to lose to allow history to repeat itself.
Beijing is calling for a “new type of great power relations.” What that means in specific terms is not clear, but inferring from Chinese behavior and commentary leads to the conclusion that it seeks to be the leading power in Asia and wants Washington, and other regional governments, to respect — or defer to — Chinese wishes. If Beijing wants a sphere of influence, then it will be disappointed.
For its part, the U.S. wants Beijing to take a higher profile role in the region and the world, and it sees those responsibilities as perfectly compatible with traditional relations among nations. China is merely one great power among several. Indeed, the appropriateness of the very label “great power” depends on a country’s willingness to assume those responsibilities, whether the issue in question is cybersecurity, climate change, North Korea, Iran’s nuclear ambitions or setting rules for resolutions of disputes.
In the past, the U.S. has called on China to be a “responsible stakeholder,” which is the rubric it used during the second Bush administration to encourage Beijing “to be part of the solution” rather than part of the problem.
Thus far, China’s preferred response is to assert that it remains a developing country whose resources, like its influence, are limited, and that they are both best used dealing with China’s internal problems. That is a convenient explanation, and one that fits Chinese preferences, but it is the very antithesis of a great power.
In short, the U.S. seeks a new relationship with China. China wants a new type of relations, one that distinguishes Beijing’s relations with Washington from its ties with other countries. China believes it is a great power by definition.
The U.S. counters that such status is a function of behavior, not a country’s mere attributes. In the U.S. formulation, with power comes responsibility. Given the stakes, the entire world needs the U.S. and China to succeed in creating a working relationship.
There is a temptation, however, among Japanese, to see a working U.S.-China relationship coming at the expense of the special relationship that Japan has with the U.S. Nothing could be further from the truth. Japan and the U.S. are allies and are bound by 60 years of close cooperation, the sharing of values, interests and concerns. We are true partners.
A good U.S.-China relationship is good for Japan, and a better understanding of the two countries’ interests and concerns should reduce tension between them and with Japan. We need to have more trust in our partner and ally, just as we ask it to trust in us when we engage governments and the U.S. is not at the table.