international analysis and commentary

The US-China summit: why cooperation remains tentative


The two-day summit meeting between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping was a carefully orchestrated event to emphasize informality and foster an image of cooperation while providing little meaningful information to the outside world. Those atmospherics prevailed, culminating in a vague pledge to build a “new model” of cooperative relations between major countries. The two leaders appeared to make scant progress on actually reducing the policy disagreements and the resulting tensions in Sino-American relations. Significant differences still exist on an array of economic and security issues. In short, the summit was long on symbolism and short on substance.

The most intractable disagreements in the security arena are familiar ones. A week before the summit, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel highlighted one festering  US concern when he argued that the Chinese government needed to do more to stop cyber-attacks emanating from China. Cyber hacking has become a hot-button issue in both the US Congress and the American business community over the past few years, and critics regard China as the chief perpetrator. Obama warned Xi that continued cyber theft would seriously damage bilateral relations. Chinese officials, however, vehemently deny that their government engages in such nefarious tactics and simultaneously accuse the United States of doing so.

In truth, so-called cyber warfare is fast emerging as a high tech, 21st century hybrid of traditional espionage and sabotage. There is evidence (circumstantial, but nevertheless credible) that many of the probes and attacks directed against US targets have come out of China, and it is unlikely that most of them could have occurred without at least the permission, if not the direct involvement, of the Chinese government. But Beijing probably is correct that the United States engages in the very tactics it officially condemns. Washington’s fingerprints (as well as Israel’s) were all over the Stuxnet virus that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama and Xi promised to strengthen cooperation between the United States and China regarding cyber security. But even if that pledge proves real and not merely diplomatic posturing, it will be wary, suspicious cooperation on a complex problem that involves other countries – and a multitude of private entities around the world – as well as the US and Chinese governments.

A second policy difference discussed at the summit was how best to deal with so-called rogue powers – especially North Korea, Iran, and Syria. The gap in views regarding North Korea has narrowed somewhat in recent months, and that trend was reflected in the Obama-Xi meetings. Pyongyang’s disruptive, provocative behavior has managed to annoy its only significant ally, China. Chinese officials were especially irritated that Kim Jong-un’s regime spurned Beijing’s warnings against conducting missile tests and a new nuclear test. Despite China’s greater willingness to endorse stronger sanctions against its troublesome client, Chinese officials also believe that Washington needs to be less confrontational and more flexible in its dealings with Pyongyang. Consequently, while the gap in policy preferences has narrowed, it remains substantial.

Disagreements about policy toward Iran and Syria are even more pronounced, and the summit did little to resolve them. Beijing worries that Washington is flirting with yet another military crusade in the Middle East, which could both disrupt the flow of oil from that region and stimulate greater Islamic radicalism. Either development would negatively impact Chinese interests, and Beijing has not been shy about expressing that view to Washington. From the Obama administration’s perspective, China’s policy toward Damascus and Tehran has helped enable two repulsive regimes to continue engaging in dangerously destabilizing behavior that threatens US interests.

The principal security tensions between China and the United States, though, center around US suspicions regarding China’s regional ambitions as well as Beijing’s equally intense suspicions about Washington’s strategic pivot to East Asia and the initiatives associated with that shift. US leaders view China’s military modernization and rapid increase in military spending over the past decade and argue that it vastly exceeds the country’s legitimate defense needs. Their Chinese counterparts are deeply skeptical about US assurances that the pivot is not a containment strategy directed against China. A recent report from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded: “The US Asia pivot has triggered an outpouring of anti-American sentiment in China that will increase pressure” on China’s leadership to “stand up to the United States.” The report notes further that “nationalistic voices are calling for military countermeasures to the bolstering of America’s military posture in the region and the new US defense strategic guidelines.”

One focal point for the mutual suspicions is the South China Sea. US leaders are concerned that China’s claims to islands there are breathtakingly broad – encompassing about 80% of that sea. If Beijing’s position is accepted, a vast body of international waters would effectively become a Chinese lake. Since the United States is the world’s principal maritime power, and most of East Asia’s trade routes run through the South China Sea, including those of such US allies as the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan, Washington is extremely uneasy. But the US response has infuriated Beijing. The Obama administration has established embryonic security links to Vietnam and firmly reiterated its long-standing alliance with the Philippine – both of whom are rival claimants in the South China Sea.

It is Washington’s action with respect to another territorial controversy – Beijing’s dispute with Tokyo over a chain of islands, which Chinese call the Diaoyu and Japanese call the Senkaku, in the East China Sea – that has triggered the most ire in China. Chinese leaders bitterly resent the Obama administration’s none-too-subtle backing of Tokyo’s assertive behavior regarding the islands. Veteran Chinese diplomat Chen Jia, who once served as China’s ambassador to Japan, openly accused Washington of encouraging a revival of Japanese militarism, which brought so much grief to China and the rest of East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Two days of talks in the California sunshine, however cordial, did not – and could not – overcome the burgeoning suspicions on both sides regarding security issues. There are assuredly some areas of actual or potential cooperation, including the goal of de-nuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and preventing further global nuclear proliferation. But as the Obama-Xi summit illustrated, even when both countries ostensibly embrace the same objective, there may be major disagreements about how to achieve it. 

And underlying the specific policy disputes is the inherent tension between a rising great power, China, and the incumbent global hegemon, the United States.  Washington cannot shake the perception that China is gaining on the United States in terms of power and influence and is intent on becoming the dominant player in East Asia,  perhaps even beyond that region. Conversely, Beijing cannot shake the perception that US leaders are determined to constrain, if not subvert, China’s rise to great power status.  No amount of friendly summit atmospherics is going to change that dynamic. It is fortunate that extensive economic ties exist between the two countries, because they now serve as the principal buffer to the persistent tensions in bilateral security relations.