China and the US: hopeful times
20 Jun 2013|

President Barack Obama walks with President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China on the grounds of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., June 8, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Hope is blooming with the summer flowers in Beijing after the Sunnylands meeting between Presidents Xi and Obama. The hope is that the two leaders—Xi just installed and Obama secure in his second term— will find the personal rapport needed to build a ‘new kind of great power relationship’. We don’t know what that really means yet, but the atmospherics of US China relations are more positive than in years. This will come as news to Australia’s doom-sayers, determined to see Washington and Beijing in a death-spiral that forces on Canberra the terrible choice of alliance or trade. Get thee to Beijing for some warmth and pragmatism.

ASPI has just completed its tenth annual 1.5 track dialogue with the China International Institute for Strategic Studies (CIISS), and we also met with a number of Chinese international security scholars. A decade long investment has generated a frank and friendly exchange. A couple of meetings can never convey the surprising diversity of Chinese opinion on security matters, but the views of China’s elite think-tanks aren’t casual or to be dismissed.

On US relations, China watched the first term of the Obama administration with concern. There was a worry that the US was over-emphasising the military aspects of its presence in the Asia-Pacific through the defence diplomacy of the rebalance and the tough-minded planning of the Air Sea Battle concept. As the Chinese explain it, this worry has been assuaged somewhat by Washington’s recasting of the rebalance to include economic and diplomatic engagement. There are still reservations that the US might be trying to contain China, but the Obama-Xi meeting is seen to be a rapprochement after the stilted engagement of the last few years. Critically, the Chinese are focused on Obama’s acceptance of the principle set out by Xi that theirs is a ‘great power relationship.’ Conferring that status matters to China, which anxiously balances its internal strengths and weaknesses.

An Australian reading of the last few years tells the story a little differently. The US rebalance has, quite simply, worked: in Southeast Asia, by building closer security ties with countries from Singapore to the Philippines, and even more broadly from New Delhi to Wellington. This could only cause Chinese anxiety. It comes as a relief in Beijing to realise that the US is every bit as serious in wanting to engage them. That said, the US still needs to do a better job of explaining its strategic purpose in Asia. Phase two of the rebalance will emphasise engaging with China as much as the rest of the region.

So what does a new kind of great power relationship look like? The Chinese identify three principles. First, there should be a policy of avoiding confrontation and seeking to resolve differences through cooperation. Second, the two should have a mutual respect for each other’s choices of social and political systems. Third, there needs to be an emphasis on cooperation for mutual benefit. China and the US must get rid of the ‘zero sum mentality’. All of this is easier said than done but, at base, those three aims make sense and have underpinned periods in US-China relations in which cooperation has been good. The real test will be to see if both sides are prepared to invest any effort to shift from their well-entrenched current behaviours.

On this last point there seemed to be a genuine willingness on the part of Chinese interlocutors to consider new forms of cooperation. A dialogue on cyber security with the US has been initiated; a dialogue on space might follow. There’s evident priority to push the US military and the PLA together, even though both sides are frankly not that enthusiastic. The test of new great power relations will come when one of the entrenched ‘relationship breakers’ heats up. Will the US quietly reduce surveillance missions along Chinese territorial waters? (Quite possibly.) Will both sides work to prevent US weapons sales to Taiwan cutting the PLA’s contacts with America? (They’re trying.) Will they at least try to come to some understandings on cyber security? (Early days, but both understand the need.)

One area which seems beyond any short term solution for risk reduction is the poisonous relationship between China and Japan. Popular sentiment in China can be channelled by the government when it suits, but there’s a sense that nationalistic public opinion (and perhaps the PLA) are driving this relationship to a very dark place. That makes the US all the more important to Beijing as a moderating factor in north Asia. In fact, the sense that China needs the US as much for its strategic role in Asia-Pacific as for trade and investment is a factor in Chinese thinking. Having looked at the uglier world of strategic competition in Asia between 2009 and 2011, China’s now taking the view that cooperation is the best of all worlds. None of this changes China’s long term aspirations to regional and global greatness, and the possibility of regression to angry chauvinism is clear. But Obama and Xi have a starting point to do better than that if they have the real commitment.

On Australia-China relations, the signs are only positive (and are worth a blog post of their own soon). Readers should understand that, apart from occasional angry admirals or academics in either country, China understands the basis of our alliance relationship with the US and won’t make it an impediment to their cooperation with us. China is more sophisticated than to think a handful of Marines in Darwin compromises its interests. The idea of a ‘choice’ to be forced on Australia between the US and China is a false confection. It’s time Australian thinking moved on to embrace the reality of our opportunities with both countries—as both Washington and Beijing have done.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of the White House.