Pragmatism is key determinant of US-China relations

Obama prefers to be straight with Beijing – be it about trade or human rights

US president Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping share  a toast at a lunch banquet in Beijing last month. Photograph: Greg Baker

US president Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping share a toast at a lunch banquet in Beijing last month. Photograph: Greg Baker

 

After about 20 minutes of constructive, mutual back-slapping about fresh common ground that US president Barack Obama and China’s president Xi Jinping had found during a three-day Asia-Pacific summit in Beijing last month, the news conference took an awkward turn.

To a question from a New York Times reporter about visa restrictions relating to how one of the newspaper’s correspondents had had his visa renewal refused, Xi replied using an analogy that wasn’t instantly translated: “Let he who tied the bell on the tiger take it off.”

The official translation interpreted the Chinese leader’s comment as: “In Chinese, we have a saying: ‘The party which has created a problem should be the one to help resolve it.’”

“So perhaps we should look into the problem to see where the cause lies,” China’s leader continued.

Xi had warned that media outlets “need to obey China’s laws and regulations”. He echoed a similar response to an earlier question about the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong affairs are exclusively China’s internal affairs, and foreign countries should not interfere in those affairs in any form or fashion,” he said.

Apec accords

China

Xi’s response to the questions about political and press freedom in China, however, laid bare the yawning gap between the two countries and lingering tension that simmers in US-Sino relations.

It had been going so well up to that point. Washington was at pains to paint Beijing as a strong economic competitor – “peaceful, prosperous and stable”, as Obama put it – rather than a diplomatic thorn or military adversary. The US president had used the summit to counter Chinese criticism that his so-called “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region – as outlined by his first secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011 – was about weakening China’s influence in the area.

Beijing’s suspicions have been stirred by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade deal, and the backbone of Obama’s Asian-Pacific pivot, involving the US and 11 countries on the Pacific but not China. The shoring-up of Washington’s alliances with Tokyo and Seoul against the backdrop of China’s territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas with Japan and the Philippines have fanned tensions.

China’s announcement of an “air defence identification zone” in the East China Sea in November 2013, which the US defied by sending in B52 bombers, coupled with accusations of cyber espionage and currency manipulation have fuelled that atmosphere of mistrust.

The Apec summit afforded an opportunity to clear some of that air. Obama told reporters that his conversations with the Chinese president gave him “an opportunity to debunk the notion . . . that our pivot to Asia is about containing China” and assert his administration’s more conciliatory position: “We want China to succeed.”

Obama’s relationship with China is rooted in pragmatism: try to co-operate where possible and be frank about the differences, with the emphasis on finding opportunities to work together and managing relations in the region.

This means offering the US perspective on concerns about human rights but ultimately viewing the pro-democracy protests as a domestic concern for China. China has reciprocated with Xi accentuating the positive.

“It’s natural that we don’t see eye to eye on every issue”, he said, “but there have always been more common interests between China and the United States than the differences between us.”

The US has stopped short though of accepting parity with a rival superpower, despite China’s growing economic and military strength. Obama has avoided Chinese rhetoric that the countries are building a new “great power” relationship, fearing the reaction of regional allies to bestowing such status on US-Sino relations in the area’s febrile climate. Besides, China is still viewed as lagging the US on several fronts.

“We really respect China’s status as a very important country, not just in the region but in the world,” says Prof Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Programme at the University of California, San Diego. “But what we don’t want to do is to have some kind of G2 exclusive relationship with China, for example, to discuss regional affairs, because there are other important countries like Japan, India and South Korea as well as Indonesia which should be at the table.”

Recalibrating links

“We are watching to see how these agreements are implemented, the kind of actions that it tries to take to co-operate with its neighbours over territorial issues and other actions that will really speak to whether we are seeing a new, positive direction in Chinese foreign policy,” said Shirk.

Tomorrow: Clifford Coonan looks beyond the People’s Republic of China to examine developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan

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