Thursday, Jun 29, 2017, 5:00 AM CST – China


China-US Relations

One Song, Two Tunes

With visibly different approaches and objectives, China and the US are not on the same page regarding the significance of Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to the US. Is this what is meant by the ‘new normal’?

Xi meets US Congress leaders on Capitol Hill, September 25, 2015 Photo by Xinhua and AFP

Xi Jinping and UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon, September 26, 2015 Photo by Xinhua and AFP

Xi and Obama meet in Washington, September 25, 2015 Photo by Xinhua and AFP

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the US was announced in February 2015, the Chinese side voiced expectations that the summit between Xi and US President Barack Obama would help China establish an enduring and stable relationship with the US while maintaining its upward trajectory.

In contrast to the high hopes that dominated the Chinese media narrative, the response from the American media was far less enthusiastic. Coverage of Xi’s visit was eclipsed by other events, such as Pope Francis’s visit and the resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner. Even when both presidents held a joint press conference after the summit, the American media showed more interest in domestic politics than in the US-China relationship.

Moreover, despite the re-emphasis of the importance of cooperation expressed by both sides, no major breakthroughs were delivered by the summit. Contrary to Beijing’s hopes, the meetings did not produce a joint statement. Instead, the two sides provided their own versions of what had been discussed and agreed in the presidential meetings. While the one released by the Chinese government listed 49 “consensuses” as the “accomplishments” of the Chinese delegation, the factsheet released by the White House listed far fewer items, in a different order and with far less detail.

While media outlets and experts in both countries often rely on documentation released by their respective governments to interpret diplomatic engagements at the highest level, this often leads to the drawing of confused and misleading conclusions on the actual significance of events. Thus, it is important to compare the narratives of both sides to obtain a comprehensive picture of what really took place behind closed doors in Washington.

‘New Model’

The most striking difference between the two documents released after the summit is the interpretation of the so-called “new model of major-country relations.” First advanced by Xi during his informal meetings with Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California in 2013, this concept consists of three major principles: non-confrontation and non-conflict, mutual respect for core interests, and win-win cooperation.

While this concept was briefly accepted by Obama at Sunnylands, US officials have been avoiding it in the past couple of years, as many, skeptical about China’s global ambitions, have interpreted the effort to advance a “new model of major-country relations” as an attempt by China to treat with the US on an equal footing.

A major goal of Xi’s visit seemed to be to have the US officially endorse the new model in terms of handling bilateral relations, just as the Chinese leadership has adopted it as a foundation for its diplomatic relations with all other major countries.

In the White House factsheet, there was no mention of any discussion between both presidents of this “new model.” Although the list of “consensuses” released by the Chinese government also did not explicitly state that the leaders had engaged in discussion of the new model, the list opened with a section entitled “new model of major-county relations.”

The section began: “The two sides positively commended the important outcomes of the meeting at Sunnylands in 2013, the meeting in Beijing in 2014, and the meeting in Washington in 2015 between the two presidents, and agreed to continue their efforts to build a new model of major-country relationship between China and the US based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

It continued: “The US welcomes a strong, prosperous, and stable China, supports China to play a greater role in global and regional affairs, and supports the stability and reform of China, and China respects the traditional influence and realistic interests of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, and welcomes the US to continue to play a positive and constructive role in regional affairs.” This final sentence in particular appears to conform to the “mutual respect” principle China advocates in the new model.

According to the interpretation of various Chinese State media sources, the US has endorsed the “essence” of the new model, without explicitly endorsing the term itself.

This discrepancy may indicate that the two countries are not on the same page when it comes to the basic principles that guide the bilateral relationship. While China has adopted what Beijing calls a “holistic approach” that focuses more on “the bigger picture” and “overall principles,” the US prefers to focus on specific issues. For the US, mutual trust and respect can only be achieved after these specific problems are solved. For China, specific problems can only be solved when the two sides agree to trust and respect each other. Such a difference in the fundamental approach to the bilateral relationship appears to be manifest in the discussion of various issues during the summit.


The issue of cybersecurity was no doubt the most prominent in the run-up to Xi’s visit, as the Obama administration threatened to impose sanctions against China in response to alleged cyberattacks including economic espionage carried out against private US companies as well as the hacking of US Office of Personnel Management security dossiers containing information on 22 million Americans. Beijing has consistently refuted all of these allegations.

After extensive diplomacy prior to and during the summit, the US and China reached an agreement that “neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors,” phrasing included in the documents released by both governments.

Interestingly, neither Washington nor Beijing granted a prominent position to this agreement in their releases. It takes careful browsing of the text to locate these specific clauses. The low-profile nature of the agreement may indicate that neither Washington nor Beijing is content with what they have achieved on the issue.

For American officials and observers, the agreement’s lack of specifics and Beijing’s intractable position that it was not behind the alleged attacks have made any such agreement impossible to enforce.

For Beijing, the wording of the agreement largely adopted the American perspective on the issue, explicitly differentiating state-led online spying from so-called economic espionage in the commercial sector. Beijing has long argued that there are no international norms regarding cybersecurity and online sovereignty, and thus considers the distinction an arbitrary one made unilaterally by the US in service of its own interests.

Moreover, the wording of the agreement is quite different from that reported by the New York Times ahead of Xi’s visit on September 19, which claimed that the US and China would agree “not [to] be the first to use cyberweapons to cripple the other’s critical infrastructure during peacetime,” a position Beijing would likely deem much closer to the principle of “mutual respect” it has been advocating.

From the Chinese perspective, China has shown respect to the US and has restrained from directly accusing the US government of cyberespionage, although documents leaked by former CIA employee Edward Snowden suggest that the US has conducted massive cyberattacks against China, evidence that tallies with official US government reports that state that the gathering of economic intelligence, including that related to science and technology “against both the state and non-state sector,” is a national policy.

Adopting the US perspective on the cyberespionage issue without discussing US hacking in China has led Chinese observers to accuse the US of seeking “unilateral concessions.” As neither side got what it wanted, continued diplomacy (or confrontation) over cybersecurity looks to be the norm for some time.


After the issue of cybersecurity, the South China Sea was perhaps the next highest priority topic on the agenda, and also proved to be an issue on which no real progress was made during the summit. Indeed, the ongoing controversy over Chinese sovereignty in disputed waters was not mentioned anywhere in the factsheets released by either side. In their joint press conference, Obama and Xi reiterated their respective positions on the issue, and neither indicated that he would back down from his current position.

However, the two countries do appear to have made progress in the area of military-to-military relations. The two sides finalized and signed an agreement governing air-to-air encounters between Chinese and US aircraft, which had been negotiated between the two militaries in the months before the summit. A similar confidence-building measure (CBM) guiding the behavior of the US Coast Guard and China’s Maritime Police was also cemented.

As the US steps up its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region to counter the activities of a seemingly more assertive Chinese military, such mechanisms will help manage encounters between the two countries both in air and at sea in order to prevent misunderstandings and miscalculations.

Both sides have shown commitment to continued discussions on additions to the Notification of Major Military Activities CBM. Documentation of these discussions varied slightly, with the US version stressing that it placed top priority on “completion of a mechanism for informing the other party of ballistic missile launches,” something not mentioned in China’s account. Instead, the Chinese version stressed that the Chinese navy accepted a US invitation to attend the Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2016, apparently in a bid to emphasize the “non-confrontation” and “mutual respect” theme trumpeted by Beijing’s “new model.”

Compared to the cybersecurity issue and the ongoing tension in the South China Sea, progress made on the military relationship between the two countries didn’t receive much media attention. In reality, however, such agreements could prove crucial, considering that the possibility of a major confrontation between the two militaries or proxies in the South China Sea looks ever more likely.

BIT and Climate Change

In the run-up to Xi’s visit to the US, analysts had predicted that progress on a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) could potentially be the big deliverable. This view proved overly optimistic. No major progress was announced since both sides exchanged their “negative lists” of sectors that would remain off-limits to foreign investment.

During the joint press conference, the two presidents said that they had agreed to “step up” (Obama’s words) and “vigorously push forward” (Xi’s) BIT negotiations. In the White House general factsheet, a potential BIT was not mentioned at all. A separate factsheet on economic relations said there had been “positive progress” in negotiations, with “improved negative list proposals in September.”

By contrast, the consensus list released by China devoted five items (out of 49) to the BIT and related fields. In addition to mentioning that the two sides had agreed to “speed up negotiation” to reach “a high-level BIT,” China’s documentation stressed that the two sides had agreed to continue their communication and negotiation in several fields, including national security reviews of investment from the other party, investment at the state/provincial level and high-tech investment. Additional information provided in the Chinese version indicated which areas were priorities for Beijing.

Compared to the stagnation in BIT negotiations, progress made on climate change was perhaps the meeting’s most significant outcome. While China announced that it would initiate a “national emissions trading system” in 2017, the US released its Clean Power Plan, which pledges to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.


Amid tension over contentious issue such as cybersecurity, a major consensus of the summit was that the US and China would step up their cooperation in various areas of global governance, another objective given significant weight in both sides’ documents.

In the White House factsheet, it states that the two sides “agreed to work together to constructively manage our differences and decided to expand and deepen cooperation” in areas including Afghanistan, peacekeeping, nuclear security, wildlife trafficking, ocean conservation, sustainable development, food security, global health security, humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

While these areas are also echoed in the Chinese version, there is a major difference in the interpretation of bilateral discussions of cooperation in global financial governance. China’s increasingly prominent role in the global financial system, epitomized by the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), has been a major concern for the US, which sees its international financial primacy, represented by the IMF and the World Bank, as being threatened.

It is obvious that the US remains guarded regarding cooperation in the financial sector. In the White House factsheet, the word “finance” or “financial” was not even mentioned. Instead, it only briefly stated that the two sides would “expand their collaboration with international institutions to tackle key global development challenges.”

By contrast, the release issued by the Chinese side offered a much more detailed account of the discussions, which, it claimed, covered a variety of fields, including the reform of the World Bank and the IMF, the internationalization of the Chinese yuan, and strengthening the “multilateral development financing system.” While the document didn’t specifically mention the AIIB, it stated that the two sides “acknowledged” that new institutions would become “important contributors of the international financial framework.”

The difference in both sides’ perspectives of their respective roles in the international financial system is quite symbolic in that it tells readers more about what the two countries may have disagreed on than what they have agreed upon. With different approaches and different objectives, the two countries seem to be competing more than cooperating.

It is beyond doubt that such a discrepancy poses a threat to the stability of the bilateral relationship. But, as the bilateral relationship between the US and China has become increasingly complex, it may not be a bad thing to allow space for the two sides to offer different narratives and interpretations of this summit, and of those to come.

To a certain degree, both Washington and Beijing needed to use Xi’s visit to serve their domestic agendas. While Xi sought a favorable result in order to facilitate his reform agenda back home, Obama needed to project a tougher image on China to show that the US could, if needed, hold Beijing accountable on priority issues.

As nationalism is on the rise in both countries, there have been calls for tougher positions from their respective polities. By releasing their own versions of the story rather than issuing a joint statement, both governments can interpret the results of the summit to suit their own agendas and appease the hawks, which, in itself, can help to better manage the differences between the two countries.

After all, as the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies has entered something of an impasse, setting one song of cooperation to two different melodies is, from a diplomatic point of view, preferable to voicing a common tone of confrontation.


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