An Inconclusive Sino-US Summit at a Pivotal Tipping Point

Summits come in two varieties. One are breakthroughs that set in motion a whole new dynamic between the leaders and their respective governments and societies. Such a summit occurred in late 1986 when the leaders of the then two superpowers—Reagan and Gorbachev—met.

Despite the lack of an agreement at the summit, it facilitated the successful negotiation on the 1987 INF (intermediate- range nuclear forces) Treaty.  More importantly, the new East-West rapport that was established brought the Cold War one step closer to its conclusion.

The second variety are more the norm.  They consecrate the obvious, leaving the big questions unanswered. This is what we witnessed over the past few days with the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the US.  Certainly a Rip Van Winkle  waking up after a decade of slumber would be startled to see the Chinese leader feted in a way formerly reserved for just NATO allies and partners.  Past US Administrations vowed never to allow a peer competitor to emerge and in this summit the United States seemed to be celebrating the fact despite the growing problems in the US-Sino relationship.  It’s amazing to think that in a little over ten years the US has gone from thinking of itself as the unipolar power to one sharing the stage with a possible challenger to the Western liberal order.

Early on in its tenure, the Obama Administration flirted with the idea that the US and China could be partners, ruling a G2 world. There were still elements of that earlier infatuation.  The summit produced two agreements, one signaling increased cooperation on cutting back carbon emissions and a second in which both promised not to engage in economic espionage.  The first one is probably the more significant as it increases the chances that there will be a global pact on climate change later this year in Paris.

Xi has done a favor here for Obama.  A key arguing point of those opposed to any follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol has been that the developing states—like China and India—have not had to make any sacrifices.  Cleaner air is now a political necessity in China so Xi is largely self-interested in his commitment on emissions cuts.  But he has shown finesse in cloaking it within a bilateral accord, providing the Obama Administration with a domestic as well as diplomatic victory.

The second agreement against economic espionage has on the appearance of a win for the US, but my hunch is that it’s likely to be a pyrrhic one in the long run.  The damage has been largely done.  American businesses are turned off by earlier Chinese promises to stop the illicit gathering of intellectual property.  Even if there’s process now to deal with US accusations, many in and out of the business world assume that those complaints will be litigated to death and little concrete will happen in terms of changed behavior on China’s part.

The bigger question is whether we are tipping towards an increasingly fragmented world with China dominating a widening sphere of influence in Asia with the help of a parallel set of regional institutions—such as the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.  And that was left unanswered.  It’s clear from the rhetoric that Xi is not giving an inch on China’s maritime claims, standing firm on China’s right to operate unilaterally in areas it deems to have historic claims.  If this wasn’t a shot across the US bow, I don’t know what is.

On the AIIB, it was more of a draw.  China has promised to adhere to “the highest international environmental and governance standards” in its new bank as well as increase its contributions to the Western-led World Bank while the US has reiterated its backing for the renminbi’s inclusion in the IMF basket of reserve currencies.

Looking back sometime in the future on this summit, I wonder if lack of creative US solutions on the maritime disputes and US blundering on China’s creation of the AIIB won’t make Xi and other Chinese leaders more inclined to move on a separate sphere for China, ditching any thought of mutual cooperation in recreating a new global order.  With all the trappings of a state visit fully ablaze, one could not be blamed for thinking the summit has inaugurated a G2 partnership—but this is not the G2 partnership that Americans have had in mind.  For the United States, G2 meant China falling in with US rules for the world order.  In the maritime disputes, the US would have China engaging in a multilateral process with its neighbors to resettle the dispute.  All along, Chinese leaders have repudiated the whole concept of G2, particularly if it meant China assuming global responsibilities.  For them, resuscitating the Middle Kingdom seems to be what it is all about and I fear the lack of both credible US “carrots” and “sticks” to see them fully integrated into the global order may convince them that they have the US go-ahead to create their own separate world.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.