Thursday, Aug 17, 2017, 9:59 AM CST – China


China-US Relations

Cooperative Competition

While the recent US-China summit appears to have temporarily arrested the downward spiral in relations between Washington and Beijing, the future of the Sino-US bilateral relationship remains replete with uncertainties

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama meet at the White House, Washington, DC, September 25, 2015 Photo by IC

Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama announce their choice of name for a panda born at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, September 25, 2015 Photo by IC

Xi Jinping visits Boeing’s commercial plant in Seattle, Washington, September 23, 2015 Photo by Xinhua

Xi Jinping with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, September 23, 2015 Photo by AFP

Xi Jinping (center) meets Microsoft’s Harry Shum (left) and David Brown (right) during Xi’s tour of the company’s main campus in Redmond, Washington, September 23, 2015 Photo by AFP

Although it has been weeks since Chinese President Xi Jinping made his state visit to the US in late September 2015, his first in his capacity as China’s paramount leader, the significance (or insignificance) of the summit between Xi and his US counterpart Barack Obama continues to be the subject of media scrutiny in both countries. Indeed, disagreements between the world’s two largest economies have led many to reconsider the fundamental basis of the bilateral relationship.

Ahead of Xi’s trip, Beijing appeared to have placed high hopes upon the visit, which was widely reported as a historic event comparable to the ground-breaking mission undertaken by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979. Deng’s US trip, conducted 36 years ago at a time when China faced a litany of domestic and international challenges including a troubled economy and external threats from the former Soviet Union, served as a landmark event which marked the start of three decades of Sino-American cooperation. At the time, China accepted US leadership, and joined the US-led international community, unleashing a seismic overhaul of China’s preceding foreign and domestic policies.

‘New Chapter’

Now, after more than three decades of open relations, many underlying factors that shape the US-China relationship have changed beyond recognition. Not only has China emerged as the world’s second-largest economy, making the economic relationship between the two countries much more competitive than before, recent disagreements over various bilateral security issues have created a reshuffled diplomatic landscape in which China has moved closer to her former common enemy with the US – Russia.

From a Chinese perspective, in the past, Beijing had to make concessions, either out of relative weakness or out of a need for what Beijing termed “a favorable international environment,” to maintain its overall relationship with the US. Earlier state visits made by former Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin and his successor Hu Jintao, were often interpreted within China along these lines. Now, wielding newly obtained economic and political power, what Beijing views as a status quo that does not work in its favor has lost appeal to the leadership.

“When the US is no longer capable of handling regional or global issues on its own, it creates a long-term disconnect between power and international order, which is unsustainable,” argued Qi Hao, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in a commentary published on

“Both leaders should bear in mind that the new model needs to be built on a new balance of power and psychological expectations, rather than on unilateral concessions by one party,” he added. 

Such perceptions in China coincide with increasing concerns over both China’s development trajectory and its global ambitions. As disputes over sovereignty issues such as the South China Sea, repeated American accusations of Chinese cyberattacks, and mutual mudslinging over perceived protectionism all continue to escalate, American experts are now debating whether the US should change its grand strategy toward China, with many arguing that the bilateral relationship has reached a “tipping point.”

In such a context, Xi’s visit, just like Deng’s in 1979, was given particular significance, as many Chinese media outlets expect it to open a “new chapter” in the bilateral relationship, which could both accommodate China’s aspirations as a rising power and the US’s desire to maintain its dominance in the global order, thus preventing direct conflict between the two countries.


Starting his US trip on September 22 in Seattle, Washington, by meeting with the local business community and signing a deal with Boeing to purchase 300 jets, Xi kicked off his visit by emphasizing the positive aspects of the bilateral relationship – economic and commercial ties, which have long provided essential ballast.

In Seattle, the Chinese delegation also jointly hosted an Internet forum with Microsoft, during which Xi met with top executives of major American Internet companies including Apple, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Amazon and LinkedIn. During the meeting, Xi told the assembled executives that China advocated cooperation in development of a “secure, stable and prosperous” Internet, remarks widely considered an effort to mitigate the negative impact of the persistent allegations of Chinese hacks on US businesses and government agencies on his upcoming summit with Obama.

In Washington, DC, Xi and China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan were welcomed to the White House with an honor guard, a 21-gun salute and an elaborate state banquet, the highest level of protocol that can be offered to visiting foreign leaders.

As a symbol of international respect and an indication of both status and rank, Xi’s reception was considered a reflection of the strategic importance that the US affords to maintaining strong, positive relations with China.

Despite the heated debates and controversies surrounding various thorny issues, most notably the accusations of Chinese cyberattacks on the US, which Beijing has consistently denied, Xi faced no public embarrassments during the two-day summit between the presidents held on September 24 and 25.

In their public comments, both leaders stressed the positive aspects of the US-China relationship, while contextualizing disagreements as a normal part of a complex relationship that had to be carefully managed.

By signing an agreement on cyberespionage that declared that neither government would support the digital theft of corporate secrets or business information, and finalizing an agreement to govern air-to-air encounters between the two militaries, the two countries also showed that they share a common interest in controlling their disagreements in order to prevent them from escalating into all-out confrontation.

As Beijing focuses more on the tone and symbolism conveyed by the summit, rather than specifics, the rhetoric on cooperation has led many in China to hail Xi’s visit as a success.

Partner vs. Challenger

Much of this optimism stems from pledges made by leaders of the two countries to strengthen their cooperation on a broad menu of global governance issues. According to the detailed factsheets released by both countries, China and the US have agreed to deepen cooperation in a variety of fields, including security in Afghanistan, climate change, global health security, nuclear security, sustainable development and marine conservation.

For Beijing, the message the US conveyed by welcoming China as a partner in global governance is particularly important, and many Chinese experts have interpreted it as evidence of US endorsement of China’s position in the international order, a major goal of Beijing’s foreign policy.

It is intriguing that when Obama urged China to become a “responsible international stakeholder” during his state visit to Beijing in 2009, suggesting a Sino-US relationship dubbed “G2,” China declined the idea out of suspicion over US intentions and concern about over-extending its resources.

Now, with Xi’s proactive approach to diplomacy, China has greatly stepped up its global outreach and scaled up its contributions to various global governance initiatives.

In Xi’s debut address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 28 just after his state visit had concluded, he announced that China would donate US$1 billion over the next 10 years to create a UN-China peace and development fund. He followed this with pledges to establish a new standby peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops and to provide military assistance worth US$100 million for African Union peacekeeping missions over the next five years. These pledges followed an earlier announcement at the UN Sustainable Development Summit held on September 26, when China promised to invest US$12 billion in the world’s poorest countries by 2030.

However, unlike the putative framework for the G2 raised by Obama in 2009, which many expected would operate in an institutional arrangement initiated and dominated by the US, China’s recent diplomatic activism in the global arena is widely interpreted as a challenge to the US-led world order.

From this perspective, any success China may have obtained with Xi’s visit should be qualified. Unlike Deng’s US trip in 1979, conducted at a time when the US and China shared important common strategic interests that set the tone and direction of bilateral relations for three decades, now a major shift in mutual perceptions is very unlikely to produce an enduring and stable consensus between the two countries.

‘Preventive Cooperation’

According to Professor Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, much of the current cooperation between the US and China can be termed as “preventive cooperation” or “passive cooperation,” in which the purpose of cooperation is mainly aimed at preventing direct conflict.

“Mutual trust is the result of cooperation, not its prerequisite,” Yan told NewsChina. “As long as both sides share a common interest in avoiding conflict, the US and China can continue to cooperate with each other even when they lack mutual trust.”

However, unlike what Yan terms “proactive cooperation,” the foundation of preventive cooperation is fragile. As the view of just how undesirable specific conflicts might be differs from country to country and from administration to administration, the future of bilateral relations is full of uncertainty.

For example, in October, just days after Xi wrapped up his US trip, it was reported that US officials had held talks with the country’s allies about the possibility of patrolling within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands and reefs upon which China has conducted either land reclamation or construction projects. As China considers these islands and reefs as its sovereign territory, such patrols, if conducted, would be very likely to provoke official protests or even direct confrontation.

Although Obama has resisted calls to adopt a tougher foreign policy stance on a variety of global issues, including relations with China,  both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, including pack leaders Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have taken to playing the “China aggression” card during their campaigns. No matter who claims the White House next, however, the fundamentals of the US-China relationship will inevitably be subject to successive rounds of scrutiny.

From this perspective, Xi’s visit to the US may have temporarily arrested a “downward spiral,” but, in the long run, establishing equilibrium in the world’s most important balance of power remains a daunting task. 


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