Page 1 of 2 Real change absent in Sino-US relations
By Richard Weitz
Chinese analysts have been assessing whether recent developments, especially the presidential and US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) meetings, have affected US-China relations in major ways. Their general sense is that relations have improved significantly since the nadir of 2010. This assessment, however, downplays the fact that the improvements have been primarily at the declaratory level rather than in major changes to policy or underlying thinking.
Some Chinese believe that these latter changes might occur, but would require prior changes in Chinese or US conceptions of their
national interests rather than simply changes in principles or concepts.
Such a development may have occurred at the recent Sino-US meetings regarding climate change and Chinese economic reform, but not North Korea, cyber-security or most other issues. Chinese experts acknowledge that Sino-American differences over Japan, North Korea, Taiwan and other critical issues remain managed rather than resolved - priming the potential for a sharp downturn in ties should one of these issues explode.
This analysis also draws heavily on the author's recent meetings going back to May with Chinese analysts and officials in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang as well as other venues.
Assessing Sunnylands and the S&ED
Chinese assessment of the Sunnylands, California summit [in June] between Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama has generally been favorable. For example, State Councilor Yang Jiechi said the summit was of "strategic, constructive and historic significance [and] will have a positive impact on the future development of China-US ties and on the peace, stability and prosperity in the region and across the world as well."
Li Jingtian, executive vice president of the Central Party School, writes: "A 1,000-mile journey begins with a single step. At Sunnylands, Xi Jinping and President Obama have already started down the path toward new US-China great power relations and clarified the goals and methods for achieving this end."
At the summit, Xi emphasized safeguarding China's national sovereignty while calling for responsible action and constructive dialogue. He listed four core principles in implementing this new pattern of relations: use existing inter-governmental dialogue and communication mechanisms; open new channels of cooperation through technological exchanges and trade; coordinate policies more on international issues; and establish "a new pattern of military relations compatible with the new pattern of relationship between the two great powers of China and America".
Chinese behavior during these meetings was a classic case of "accommodating while resisting" - acknowledging differences without making specific commitments or concessions. For example, while Obama made cyber-security a focus of the Sunnylands summit, the two sides simply reaffirmed their earlier agreement to establish a working group on the issue and seek "rules of the road".
The hope that the July 10-11 S&ED would transform the general declaratory agreements at the presidential meeting into concrete commitments and initiatives was realized in only a few cases. For example, Beijing and Washington agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and coal as well as to improve energy efficiency. Unlike in the past, the two sides agreed to prepare specific implementation plans by October 2013.
The S&ED focused mostly on economic issues, reflected the shared desire to promote mutual trade and investment. The resumption of negotiations on their long-stalled bilateral investment treaty may prove to be the most important achievement of this S&ED round.
The Chinese government welcomed the candid, in-depth and constructive dialogue on issues like promoting a "New Type of Great Power Relations", enhancing mutual trust, and global and regional hotspots. S&ED participant Vice Premier Wang Yang said the discussions "show the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in a new-type of relationship between major powers".
Chinese media commentary was also favorable. For instance, one People's University professor praised the "long-term perspective and the will to deal with concrete issues" and the commitment "to a comprehensive agenda that serves the overall interests of both participants" seen in S&ED. Other articles praised the proposed relaxation of restrictions on bilateral investment.
Yet, in both meetings, the two sides failed to make visible progress on many security issues (eg China's territorial disputes with its neighbors or US rebalancing) because the underlying drivers of the Sino-US competition persist. Chinese newspapers avoided discussions of these unresolved issues. For example, the coverage on cyber-security merely noted that both countries suffer from Internet attacks and are addressing the issue by establishing a working group.
The lack of explicit US support for the concept of a "New Type of Great Power Relationship" as specifically described by Beijing also did not appear in the newspapers. Instead, the Chinese press stated both governments had "an honest, in-depth and constructive dialogue on pushing forward" such relations.
New concepts awaiting new policies
Chinese academics generally downplay perceptions that the new Xi Jinping administration has (yet) made major changes in China's foreign policies. They argue the changes are mostly stylistic. For example, while Xi and other leaders more openly express annoyance at North Korea's provocative behavior, they also are blunter in criticizing US policies, such as missile defense programs in Asia.
Chinese experts did not anticipate any major near-term changes in their country's actual foreign policies and suggested such changes probably would occur only in the context of a comprehensive and integrated revision in China's foreign policies rather than piecemeal. These changes could aim to achieve major improvements in China's ties with the United States, though they could also represent a more comprehensive effort to counter the so-called "pivot".
Chinese analysts continue to critique US policies and Americans' alleged Cold War mentality - at times suggesting Washington even seeks to subvert China.
They oppose Washington's meddling in what they see as China's spheres-of-influence, especially by siding with neighboring countries in their disputes with Beijing. They denounce Washington's proclivity to use force without the approval of the UN Security Council, where Beijing enjoys veto power. They also dislike the US-led military alliance network in Asia and call for an end to Washington's "bloc" mentality.
Chinese analysts continue to attack what they see as US interference in China's internal affairs. These analysts dismiss Washington's claims to global stewardship in upholding benign principles of international behavior as hypocritical professions to pursue US interests under the guise of defending universal values.
In his speech at Moscow's leading international relations school earlier this year, Xi stated "We must respect the right of each country in the world to independently choose its path of development and oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries."
Xi added "Strong Chinese-Russian relations ... not only answer to our interests but also serve as an important, reliable guarantee of an international strategic balance and peace".
Chinese analysts are clearer in terms of what they want to avoid - confrontation with the United States - than what positive results they hope to achieve. They also focus on the process - the need for more dialogue - rather than concrete outcomes. For example, Ambassador Cui Tiankai said the Sunnylands summit had "clarified the direction" for a new era in US-China relations but added that both sides needed more dialogue, cooperation and communication on the issues of cybersecurity and climate change.