A desert meeting sets the stage
Sunnylands is where US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met and set the agenda in 2013 for healthy bilateral relations, but it takes time and effort to get there, Chen Weihua reports from Washington.
But turbulence, as witnessed in the past 40 years, continued, only this time the shout from Washington was not to label China a currency manipulator, but a hacker against the US government and industries.
The accusation gained steam after Mandiant, a US Internet security firm, released its report in February, allegedly tracing China’s cyber espionage to a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit in Shanghai’s Pudong area.
The Chinese government and military denied the charge and instead claimed to be a major victim of cyber attacks, many of which originated from the US.
To most American pundits at that time, cyber security seemed to be the dominant issue for the two new governments in 2013 and beyond.
Such a concern was also expressed explicitly when new US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew visited China in March, less than a week after Xi took office as president. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey also raised the issue prominently during their visit to China in April, although their primary reason for the trip was the tension on the Korean peninsula after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea conducted its third nuclear test in late February.
Despite the visits to China by several senior US officials, many wondered if Xi and Obama would meet sooner than the G20 summit in St Petersburg, Russia, in early September. And then came the surprise announcement of the Sunnylands summit.
Ruan Zongze, deputy director of Beijingbased t started with a mixed mood about the growing cooperation and competition between the existing power and the rising power. At the end of 2013, the single most important highlight of the year in relations between the United States and China came from a meeting at a 200-acre desert estate in California — Sunnylands.
The message coming out of Sunnylands was an overwhelmingly positive and a cooperative one. The two leaders vowed to build a new type of major-power relationship to defy the hostile rivalry that defined most of the existing powers and rising powers in history.
“The two presidents agreed to establish a new model of major-power relations and talked in-depth about a broad range of domestic, regional and global issues,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
By all accounts, it was quite a surprise when the announcement was made in late May that Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama would meet for an informal summit at the historic Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7-8. Top Chinese and US leaders had not met in such an informal setting since 2002 when Chinese President Jiang Zemin met President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. White House officials said they were very pleased that Xi had agreed to attend such a shirt-sleeves summit.
Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, agreed that Sunnylands was the highlight in US-China relations in 2013.
“I think one important advance is that, despite many disagreements, both sides have agreed that this is a relationship on which both sides must expend special care and attention if it is going to work, much less improve,” he said. “And both sides seem dedicated to this long-term undertaking,” Schell said.
Prior to Sunnylands, the world’s two largest economies were both facing leadership change. Obama started his second term with much of his cabinet to be reshuffled, while Xi, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, was heading a new Politburo. He would become the country’s president in March, beginning his likely 10-year leadership.
Realizing the change would occur, the US had tried to foster a close relationship with Xi early on, inviting him to visit the US in February 2012 as China’s vice-president. The trip, which took him to Washington, Los Angeles and Muscatine, Iowa, where he stayed for two nights in 1985 as a county leader from Hebei province, introduced Xi to Americans. US Vice-President Joe Biden got well acquainted with Xi after accompanying him on the tour. Biden also spent time with Xi when he toured China in August 2011.
After becoming CPC general secretary in November 2012, Xi repeatedly expressed his hope to inject “positive energy” into the bilateral relations.
I think one important advance is that, despite many disagreements, both side have agreed that this is a relationship on which both sides must expend special care and attention if it is going to work, much less improve.” ORVILLE SCHELL THE ARTHUR ROSS DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER ON US-CHINA RELATIONS AT THE ASIA SOCIETY
China Institute of International Studies, described the Sunnylands meeting as a pioneering effort by China and the US.
“The point is China and the US are so different. We have numerous differences. But at the same time we share a tremendous amount of growing convergence of interests. And this is growing business,” he said. “So both sides cannot afford to engage in a confrontational manner.”
Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it’s a good thing that China and the US understand how destructive the old pattern of great power rivalry is to world peace. He said both countries should work to enrich such a concept. Win-win
For the Chinese government, the essence of such a new type of relationship should be to seek no conflict and no confrontation but mutual respect and win-win. To some US officials, they hope this does not mean that China should be free to do whatever it wants even when the US disagrees, such as the announcement of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone and the near naval vessel encounter in that area in December.
The US has repeatedly said it does not recognize China’s ADIZ, although it has recommended that US airlines file their flight plans to Chinese authorities.
Both Chinese and US officials have quickly embraced the spirit of Sunnylands aimed to maximize cooperation and effectively manage differences between the two countries.
To reflect that spirit, the 5th round of ChinaUS Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) that was held in Washington in early July, a month after the Sunnylands, concluded with a much longer list of areas for cooperation than previous meetings. It was also the first time in years that new faces were in charge: Secretaries Kerry and Lew on the US side and State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice-Premier Wang Yang on the Chinese side.
The S&ED reaffirmed to strengthen highlevel visits and military exchanges. The two sides agreed to start substantive talks on a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) and decided to actively explore a notification mechanism for major military activities and to continue discussions on the rules of behavior for military air and maritime activities.
The S&ED this year also witnessed the first meeting of a bilateral cyber working group, which reportedly has engaged in candid, indepth and constructive dialogue. Snowden’s claims
However, revelations in early June by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden that the US has been engaging in extensive spying all over the world has put the US government on the defensive. The NSA spying, such as on Chinese telecom firms and universities, US allies and world leaders, has “hurt the US global standing” according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation and a former senior State Department official.
The US also failed to pressure China — or the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to be exact — to hand over Snowden before he fled to Russia.
Some US officials and pundits have stated that the continuous Snowden revelations have caused the US to lose much of the moral high ground in accusing other countries of cyber espionage.
Meanwhile, the two countries saw a dramatic increase of high-level visits in 2013.
In August, China’s new Defense Minister Chang Wanquan paid a four-day visit to the US, seeing the US Pacific Command in Hawaii and the Northern Command in Colorado and then holding a meeting at the Pentagon with his US counterpart, Chuck Hagel.
That trip was followed by a visit to the US in early September by Wu Shengli, commander-in-chief of the PLA Navy, who visited the Third Fleet in San Diego, California, and met his US counterpart, Chief of US Naval Operations Jon Greenert. The visit coincided with a joint search-and-rescue exercise off Hawaii in which three Chinese naval ships took part.
In early November, Chinese naval ships arrived in Hawaii again to participate in the joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief drill. Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command, said that the Hawaii drills will help foster trust.
The Chinese navy has already accepted the invitation to participate for the first time in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) in 2014. China had perviously only sent observers to the largest naval exercise in the world attended by some 20 nations.
Meanwhile, US Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh III and other Air Force leaders also visited China in late September. Defense Secretary Hagel is expected to go to China in 2014 as stated by the outcome document of the S&ED.
For years, bilateral military ties have lagged far behind other dimensions such as trade and investment. Now, many officials and experts in both nations have seen such frequent militaryto-military exchange this year as fresh hope for the two nations to fill the trust deficit.
However, in early December, the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, and a Chinese naval vessel, accompanying the country’s first and only aircraft carrier Liaoning, had a “nearmiss” in the South China Sea. While pointing fingers at one another for the first few days, both militaries later played down the incident, stressing it would not negatively affect the growing bilateral military exchanges.
“Military exchanges, including joint exercises, have developed in a positive direction. Nevertheless, there has not yet been agreement on rules of the road at sea or in the air, so accidents are still possible,” said Glaser of CSIS.
She said the incident between the Cowpens and the Chinese vessel demonstrates the potential risk and highlights the need for better understanding on operational safety.
Tackling the lack of strategic trust that has long haunted the bilateral relations seems by no means easy.
China remains deeply suspicious of the US strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, regarding it as a US scheme to dominate the region by curtailing China’s growing influence.
Stapleton Roy, former US ambassador to China and now a distinguished scholar at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, has expressed his deep concern about the strategic rivalry between the two countries, reflected in the Chinese military’s anti-access/area denial strategy and US Air Sea Battle concept, which aims to take out key military facilities on the Chinese mainland.
The two countries still face the risk of a military collision if the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, which Japan calls Senkaku, gets out of control. The US feels caught in a dilemma. It wants to avoid a direct military confrontation with China which could be calamitous to the two nations, the economic vibrant region and the world. At the same time, it wants to reassure Japan that the alliance treaty, which requires the US to defend Japan, is still valid.
This seems particularly true after some countries in the region questioned the US commitment to the area after Obama canceled his trip to East Asia in early October during the partial shutdown of the federal government.
To make up for that, National Security Adviser Susan Rice made a speech on US policy in Asia at Georgetown University on Nov 20, while Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry traveled to the region in December to show the US commitment to its rebalancing strategy. Cooperation and competition
Unlike the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, the strategic distrust between China and the US exists as the two largest economies become ever more intertwined. Bilateral trade has approached $500 billion and mutual investment has exceeded $80 billion.
According to a report by the China-US Exchange Foundation, the two nations will become each other’s top trading partner by 2022. By then, the US will export $450 billion to China every year, supporting 2.5 million American jobs. Meanwhile, about 10 million Chinese tourists will visit the US each year, from the 1.2 million in 2012.
Americans have shown an enormous interest this year when the Third Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee was held in Beijing in November to roll out economic reform measures, which promise opportunities for foreign companies.
“I used to have a problem convincing people that Chinese Party politics is really cool. Not this year, everyone wants to know how it works,” said Melanie Hart, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
On the other hand, the US-China Security Project conducted by the Pew Center in collaboration with think tanks in both Washington and Beijing found early this month that there is a low level of strategic trust between the US and China, which could make bilateral relations more turbulent.
Despite the lack of mutual trust, only small minorities of all respondents in both countries saw the other country as an enemy. Most elite and public view the other country as a competitor, while substantial minorities of all respondents saw the other nation as a partner, according to the study.
Shen Dingli, associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said he is always optimistic about the bilateral relations in the long term because both will change to suit their best common interest. “But in the short term, the relationship can get worse,” said Shen, expressing his concern for China’s push of the ADIZ.
“I am optimistic about the overall commitment of both sides to cooperate more closely together to make the relations “work,” said Schell of the Asia Society. But he said he is far less optimistic about the two countries’ ability to actually manage, much less resolve, some of the problems relating to China’s rise. Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China and US President Barack Obama are shown at the Annenberg retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, where they met June 7-8.
A view of the Sunnylands main house across one of the lakes on the golf course. US presidents, royalty and Hollywood stars have stayed at the 200-acre estate.