Improved atmosphere in US-China relations, but constraints from domestic actors remain

By David Shambaugh

The world is safer this week than last week. The Sino-American summit between presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao succeeded in stabilizing the world’s most important relationship. After more than a year of fluctuating and deteriorating ties, causing unsettling ripple effects throughout the Asia-Pacific region and globally, US-China relations were in dire need of stabilization. 

Now the key question is how long can the new stability achieved at the summit last? Any observer of Sino-American relations should be both cautiously optimistic but skeptical. Establishing equilibrium in ties between the US and China has been hard enough over the years – sustaining it has been even harder. If there’s been one overriding characteristic in the relationship over the past 30 years, it has been fluctuation and disequilibrium.

As a result, this summit could not have come at a more propitious time. The period since President Obama’s state visit to China in November 2009 until this past week has been perhaps the worst period in two decades of relations since the Tiananmen incident of 1989. Both sides took advantage of the opportunity to “reset” the tone of the relationship. Now the hope is that a new tone can result in tangible cooperation. 

There was, in this observer’s view, an implicit wager by the Obama administration going into the summit: The American side would accord President Hu full respect and dignity befitting the leader of the world’s second largest economy – which would, in turn, hopefully produce a less truculent and more compliant Chinese position on a wide range of issues in which Washington sought Beijing’s cooperation. This was the simple, but smart, strategy. Read more of this post

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Domestic politics and bilateral mistrust prevent a US-China duopoly

By Amitav Acharya

No one should be disappointed by the outcome of the US-China summit in Washington on 19 January, because nothing much was expected from it. For Hu, it was a ‘legacy’ visit, his swansong as the head of the world’s most populous and potentially most powerful nation before stepping down as the leader of the Communist Party of China in 2012. The Obama White House obliged by allowing him to make the first state visit to the White House by a Chinese leader since Jiang Zemin in 1997.

This too is not surprising. During the past year China’s image and soft power have taken a battering, especially in the Asia Pacific, where it rekindled mistrust by asserting claims over South China Sea, refusing to condemn North Korea for its aggressive tactics towards the South and restricting exports of rare earth elements. The US has gained considerable mileage out of these Chinese missteps, despite the Chinese snub to Obama at the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009, and Beijing’s harsh condemnation of the $6.4 billion US arms sale to Taiwan and the Dalai Lama visit to the White House. As fears of China are rekindled in Asia by Beijing’s own assertiveness, there is a new recognition of America’s role there as the provider of security. The Obama administration could thus afford to look generous and reward China for taking some conciliatory steps in the months leading up to the Hu visit- like letting its currency to appreciate a bit, and allowing a visit to China by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

But for those who see the US and China as leaders of the 21st century global order, the summit holds an important lesson: while the unipolar moment in international relations is over, it will not be replaced by a China-US duopoly, at least not an effective one that addresses the global challenges of our time. Read more of this post

Chinese views on Hu Jintao’s upcoming US visit

Chinese President Hu Jintao will visit the United States next week from January 18 to 21. Read what the Chinese expectations are of this trip:

Ahead of Hu Jintao’s visit, the official tone is optimistic and confident, with editorials stressing the the shared interests of China and the United States, although other analysts take a more measured tone:

On military issues, several articles stress that China is not seeking to challenge the U.S., while making clear that China needs to and deserves to develop its military capabilities:

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