Dealing with China’s rise

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Dealing with China’s rise

The single most important question today in international relations is how the world will deal with the rise of China. How this question is answered will affect the way we study international relations for the next generation, just as the cold war defined the way we studied international relations for a half-century after the end of World War II.

The Obama administration tried to address this question in its summit with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping ten days ago in Sunnylands, California. This was not your usual summit meeting at the White House with a 45-minute Oval Office meeting (that invariably ends up going well over 60 minutes), followed by a larger cabinet meeting and a working lunch. Instead, this was a summit over the course of two days, in which the conversation was supposed to be unscripted.

There were three sessions in all. The first one took place late afternoon on Friday June 7 with a focus on larger strategy issues. The second session took place over dinner, focusing on specific policy issues. And the final session was the following morning, devoted to economic issues. In between, the two leaders were supposed to take long walks around the rolling grounds of the Sunnylands estate in an effort to bond and build some personal rapport.

Allies like South Korea and Japan might wonder why the U.S. took such an unorthodox approach to the summit. Skeptics might consider it a symbol of how desperate the United States is for cooperation with China. Journalists like to call this the Group of Two or G-2. After all, eight hours of discussions were not scheduled for President Park Geun-hye or Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their recent summit visits to Washington. Is the U.S. seeking a power condominium arrangement with China?

I don’t think so. What is happening is that the U.S. is searching for a model for how to deal with China. The U.S. has a framework for relations with Japan and Korea. They are time-honored alliances, and therefore templates exist for how these allies interact with each other. We may disagree on occasion with one another, but we know that these disagreements are in the context of a broader alliance framework that defines our interactions.

No such framework exists for China. China is not an ally. And China is not an adversary. The U.S. knows that the Asian region does not want to have to choose between either of the two great powers. Thus, the U.S. does not want an adversarial relationship with China. But it knows that a cooperative one, like the alliances with South Korea, Australia and Japan, is not likely.

So one of the purposes of the eight hours of discussions at Sunnylands was to try to figure out what the new model should be for future relations. The idea was to do this with Xi, who is likely to lead China for the next decade. How successful was this effort?

U.S. officials described the meeting as a good “first date” between the two leaders, but there were no announcements of a new framework for U.S.-China relations. The Obama administration continues to focus on “strategic reassurance,” which essentially proffers two messages: 1) Signaling clearly to the Chinese that the U.S. does not want an adversarial relationship with China; 2) Sounding the theme of deep mutual interdependence between the two great powers, and a U.S. willingness to cooperate. The results of this discussion are not yet clear. On the one hand, China’s willingness to engage in such a dialogue is a good sign. On the other, the fact that they tried to fill up the two days of meetings with long-winded scripted talking points defeats the intended purpose of meeting.

The model that the United States would like for U.S.-China relations is one in which China grows to become a responsible member of the international community, playing by the rules and doing their fair share on public issues like climate change, nonproliferation, development assistance and global economic rebalancing. The model that China would like is one in which the U.S. (and the world) respects China’s interests and where Washington and Beijing accommodate each other’s needs. The latter is more like a power condominium model - a true G-2 - which would not suit other members of the region well. Closing this gap will require many more meetings.

On North Korea, Beijing showed a clear willingness to express its frustration with the regime’s behavior. Xi re-emphasized his priority of denuclearization and a return to the 2005 six-party talks joint statement. These statements are not new. One hopes that behind these rote declarations, Obama and Xi were able to have a genuine dialogue about the future of the peninsula and contingencies in case there are political discontinuities inside the North.

This type of discussion, if it happened, would never be revealed to the public. Perhaps the most encouraging sign in this regard was the view expressed by the Chinese at Sunnylands that Beijing is framing the North Korea problem as one that directly impacts its national security. That would be language the Chinese have not used before.

* The author is professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by BY Victor Cha
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