One hundred years ago, Germany’s rise as a great power so destabilized the European order, and so scared top dog Britain, that the conflict between them tore their world to pieces. Further back in history, dominant Sparta’s fear of Athens’ emergence led to a war that left the ancient world in shreds.
In China, diplomats take that type of long view. When President Xi Jinping, ruler of the contemporary world’s rising star, meets US President Obama for two days of informal talks in California on Friday, he will have one overriding goal: to convince the leader of today’s established power that they can learn from history.
Beijing has been talking up “a new kind of great power relationship” for several months now. Exactly what this mantra means is not yet clear. But Washington, too, is anxious to explore it.
“There is a lot of uncertainty and frustration in America about where China is going, and a lot of uncertainty and fear in China about what the US plans to do about us,” says Jia Qingguo, deputy head of Peking University’s School of International Studies.
If the two leaders hit it off, he adds, their weekend meeting “could be immensely helpful to guide the relationship in a positive direction.”
Strategic trust between the world’s top two economies is at a dangerously low level, worn away recently in a number of ways: Washington has accused Beijing of massive commercial cyberespionage; China is suspicious that President Obama’s military and diplomatic “pivot to Asia” is a bid to contain the Asian giant’s rise; China has pressed territorial claims and clashed with US allies such as Japan and the Philippines.
The two leaders will hold the first unscripted, two-day Sino-US summit (allowing time for extended conversation) since Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong stunned the world in 1972. And it could have equally dramatic consequences, suggests Orville Schell, head of the Asia Society’s Center for US-China Relations in New York.
“A second great breakthrough in the relationship has become a Holy Grail,” he says. “Of course it’s hard to do, but that’s their aspiration.”
Chinese officials and scholars tend to talk in airy generalities when they are pressed for the salient elements of Beijing’s vision of a “new kind of great power relationship.” They come up with phrases such as “mutual respect, mutual benefits, and mutual cooperation” or the need for “rules and norms to be respected.”
“The Americans are very concerned to make the concept apply to concrete problems,” acknowledges Professor Jia, who has been active in the intellectual debate. “China understands that, and we are working on it.”
In Washington, some skeptics fear that the proposal’s purpose is to make the United States accept China’s stance on sensitive issues, such as Taiwan’s status or the Dalai Lama, as a precondition for cooperation on other topics.
“If China thinks the new framework would be a tool to compel the US to respect China’s core interests … we are setting ourselves up for failure,” warns Paul Haenle, former China director at the National Security Council. “If that’s the starting point for Chinese cooperation, it won’t work.”
But Xi knows that “we can’t force the US to do what it doesn’t want to do, or set preconditions that cannot be met,” says Jia. The US-China relationship encompasses much more than China’s “core issues,” he adds. “We can work in other areas and live with our differences.”
Officials on both sides of the Pacific seeking out issues where the US and China could find common interests do not have far to look. Nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, freer trade, and easier cross-border investment are topics that both sides have raised with each other.
In recent weeks, China has shown greater signs of readiness to work in tandem with the US to put a stop to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Beijing has also agreed to set up a working group with US officials to discuss cyberespionage, and the trade ministry has sent signals that China might be interested in joining the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade group currently in the making.
If Beijing has been hesitant so far to cooperate closely with Washington on Iran and North Korea, analysts here say, it is because China is not clear whether America’s ultimate goal in these countries is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons or to overthrow their governments.
“At this summit, China would like the US to make a lot of things clear,” says Liu Feitao, an expert on Sino-US relations at the China Institute of International Studies, a Beijing think tank linked to the Foreign Ministry.
Xi appears to have the personal, political, and geostrategic confidence to ask Obama for such clarifications. But Chinese strategists say they are under no illusions that their country is a match for the United States.
‘Still feeling its way’
China’s economy may be the second-largest in the world, but it is still less than half the size of the US economy, however it is measured. China is building its military forces quickly, but its Navy is still several years away from deploying its first functioning aircraft carrier group. (The US Navy currently deploys 11.) China’s per capita income is not expected to equal America’s until sometime late this century.
“America may be in decline relative to its own history, “says Professor Liu, “but compared to other countries in the world, including China, it will go on having the advantage.”
China, meanwhile, “is still feeling its way” toward being a great power, says Mr. Schell.
After more than a century of foreign domination, civil war, poverty, and political turmoil, “China is pulsing with desire to restore world respect and become a country of consequence,” Schell says. “That could be very positive if they find the parity and dignity they have yearned for in a constructive, workable, and equitable relationship with the United States.”