When President Obama arrives in Beijing on Monday for his first visit since 2009, Chinese President Xi Jinping will welcome him with all the pomp of a state visit. That evening, fireworks will open a meeting of Asia Pacific leaders.
But there is little to celebrate. In the 18 months since Obama and Xi first met at the Sunnylands resort in California — where they ate a meal by celebrity chef Bobby Flay and raised a toast of Chinese liquor — China and the United States have confronted each other over Asian security, territorial claims, economic cyberespionage and U.S. opposition to China’s proposal for a new Asian infrastructure bank.
Beneath those issues lie larger questions of how the United States adjusts to a more prosperous and outward-looking China and whether China’s rise bumps up against the United States and its allies in the Pacific or whether all nations will benefit.
The atmospherics in Beijing leading up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit could be better. A string of nasty articles about foreign forces has appeared recently on blogs and in the state-run media, coloring the political atmosphere. Barely four weeks ago, at a meeting about the political role of arts and culture, Xi warmly shook hands with anti-American blogger Zhou Xiaoping, whose posting “Shattered Dreams in America” railed on a “greedy” and “oppressive” economic system.
Despite the strains, officials on both sides are working to make this summit a success. Steps to slow climate change — a priority for Obama and Chinese alarmed by choking pollution — offer the most likely area for progress.
There has been a flurry of preparation recently, including a visit by Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi to Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s Boston home and a visit by Obama’s chief of staff, John Podesta, and the State Department’s top climate negotiator, Todd Stern, to Beijing. National security adviser Susan E. Rice made her first visit to China in September, pressing Xi and other top officials to aid international efforts to combat Ebola and the Islamic State.
And the Obama administration has also been restrained in its comments about the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, saying only that it hopes issues can be resolved peacefully, without endorsing the goals of the demonstrators.
U.S. officials once hoped that Obama and Xi could establish a personal bond that would make agreement easier. Since Sunnylands, Xi has strengthened his hand in China through an anti-corruption campaign that has sidelined several powerful rivals, while Obama’s domestic stature has sagged under the weight of foreign crises and lingering economic discontent even as the economy rebounds.
But both sides still hope they can push forward.
“Xi and Chinese might see President Obama not a strong leader in the U.S., because of the midterm election outcome and because of his nice personality,” said Chu Shulong, a professor of political science and international affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “But the Chinese still think he can be a strong leader in foreign policy and relations, especially when he can do little in domestic areas in the next two years.”
What they want to leave behind is getting tangled up in diplomatic code words laden with ambiguity. In late 2011, with U.S. troop involvement winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration declared that it would “pivot to Asia,” a move that included the basing of a small military force in Australia and, more recently, a new defense agreement with the Philippines. Beijing saw it as a containment policy aimed at China, and eventually the Obama administration adopted a new phrase, a strategic “rebalance” to the region.
“Rebalance is a much more accurate description of the policy,” former Obama national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon said last week. “Pivot was a word that speechwriters liked a lot because it was strong.”
China has its own ambiguous buzz phrases. At a joint news conference with Obama after the Sunnylands summit last year, Xi pledged to pursue a “new model of major country relations.” He repeated the phrase four times.
Behind the scenes, however, the two sides had negotiated until 3 a.m. over whether Obama would endorse Xi’s slogan. White House aides feared they did not understand how the Chinese defined it. “How do we build a new model? That’s the rub,” one U.S. official recalled. In the end, Obama spoke of a “new model of cooperation.”
U.S. and Chinese officials now say the goal of the “new model” is benign: To avoid the historical conundrum of whether a rising power must inevitably come into conflict with an existing one. Nothing is preordained, said Donilon, adding, “International relations is not a subset of physics.”
The Obama administration says it has been trying to strike the right balance between accommodation and firmness, while coaxing Beijing into taking on more responsibility to help solve global problems.
But signals keep getting crossed.
In a speech at Georgetown University in November 2013, Rice said that the administration’s strategy is aimed at managing “inevitable competition while forging deeper cooperation on issues where our interests converge — in Asia and beyond.” She cited North Korea, Iranian nuclear negotiations, Afghanistan and Sudan as areas where the two nations could work together.
Two days later, however, the Chinese stunned the administration by declaring an air defense zone in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan and known in China as the Diaoyu Islands. The move was rooted in long-standing regional tensions and historical grievances, but it risked actual conflict with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. Moreover, its timing, on the eve of Vice President Biden’s visit to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul in December 2013, embarrassed the White House.
In response, the United States flew two B-52 bombers through the zone and announced it would continue military flights without notifying Beijing, but the Obama administration instructed commercial jets to register with China before passing through to avoid a confrontation.
At that point, Biden was seen as managing U.S. relations with China. He and Xi had traded visits, with stops at Los Angeles and a Chinese village when Xi was vice president in 2011 and 2012. Kerry and Rice appeared less interested with engaging in Asia, current and former administration officials said, as they focused on the Middle East and Europe. And several top China experts left the administration after the first term.
On Dec. 4, 2013, Biden warned Xi during a face-to-face meeting in Beijing not to establish another air defense zone over disputed waters in the South China Sea, and administration officials point to the fact that Beijing has not done so as a successful outcome. But in early 2014, the Chinese Navy continued to flex its muscle, ramming fishing boats, claiming territorial rights over additional islands and setting up a deep-sea oil-
exploration rig off of Vietnam.
“They’re unreconstructed realists,” said Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “They’re constantly testing us. If they sense an opportunity, they push forward.”
In April, Obama traveled to the region and announced, on his first stop in Tokyo, that his administration did not take a position on the sovereignty of the disputed islands in the East China Sea. But he emphasized that the United States would defend Japan against any attack based on their long-standing security treaty — marking the first time a U.S. president had said so.
The Japanese were thrilled. But the effect once again was short-lived. In August, with Obama on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, a Chinese military jet performed a dangerous barrel roll over a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in international airspace.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes called the act “a deeply concerning provocation.”
But long-standing tensions between China and Japan could soon ease. Last week, Japan acknowledged that it and China had differing views over the islands — which some analysts saw as a diplomatic concession — as a precondition for Xi to agree to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the APEC meetings.
On the economic front, the United States and China have failed to ease tensions despite $562 billion in bilateral trade.
The United States and other industrialized nations have sought to persuade China to abide by international rules by trying to get Beijing to become more invested in international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
But the Chinese view such governing bodies as U.S.-led proxies aimed at maintaining the West’s advantages. A 12-member trade pact, the Trans Pacific Partnership, being negotiated by the Obama administration excludes China and has alarmed Beijing as a direct challenge to China’s deepening economic ties in the region.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” Carolyn Atkinson, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for international economics, said last week. “It’s a positive-sum game.”
Last month, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy, but Beijing is frustrated by the failure of the United States to give it a bigger voice at the IMF, where it has only a 3.81 percent voting share — smaller than France’s.
In response, Beijing has sought to establish its own multilateral institutions, foremost a new Beijing-based Asian infrastructure bank initially funded with $50 billion from China.
“The idea of the bank is that China would assist in development, but really they want the bank as projecting an Asia organized by China,” said a Japanese official in Washington, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
On Oct. 24, China signed a memorandum with 21 countries, excluding South Korea, Australia and Indonesia, to establish the infrastructure bank. The Australian Financial Review reported that Kerry had personally asked Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to keep Australia out.
But many experts say the Obama administration is waging a losing battle. “For the U.S. Treasury to go about telling people to not do what is in your best interests is shooting ourselves in our foot,” Wing Thye Woo, a professor at the University of California at Davis, said at a conference at the Brookings Institution.
Even more vexing for the Obama administration has been China’s rampant use of cyberespionage for economic gain. American companies complain about what they call the theft of their intellectual property, and Atkinson called the pattern “alarming” and said it “does adversely affect the fundamentals of the U.S.-
In May, the Justice Department indicted five members of the Chinese military on charges of hacking into computers and stealing trade secrets of leading steel, nuclear and solar firms — the first time such charges have been leveled at a foreign country. Rice raised the matter with Xi in September, and Obama is expected to do the same this week.
U.S. companies, however, saw the indictments as an empty gesture and a sign that diplomatic channels had failed to put an end to the cyberspying. Algenol chief executive Paul Woods, who says his algae biofuel company’s computers have been attacked by Chinese hackers, called the Justice Department actions “a joke.”
In China, the U.S. claims of foul play have fallen on deaf ears and have been fuel for further condemnation in essays and articles in China’s state-run media.
“We’re aware of how they characterize the United States, our motives and policies,” Evan Medeiros, Asia director at the National Security Council, said at the Center for American Progress earlier this year. “What concerns me most is that by promoting some of these negative images of the United States, it probably constrains the political space for Chinese leaders to grow cooperation.”
Last week, Kerry delivered a speech on U.S.-China relations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington in which he touted progress on a bilateral climate change working group, praised Chinese leaders for committing $130 million to fight Ebola and urged China to continue to step up on the world stage to tackle serious problems with the United States.
But in the 5,400-word address, the secretary made no mention of a “new model” of relations.