Even as Obama and Xi strike accords, a quiet tussle for leadership in Asia

The world's two most powerful leaders agreed on action on climate change, visas, and boosting investment. But vital questions remain about both countries' strategic ambitions in the region.

Greg Baker/AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama as they arrived at a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Wednesday.

As President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping talked late into the night on Tuesday – they lingered five hours over dinner – it became clear that Mr. Obama’s first trip to China in five years was by no means a perfunctory affair.

And when the two wrapped up the US leader’s state visit on Wednesday, they announced ambitious pledges to combat climate change, along with deals to boost investment, ease travel, and have their armed forces talk more often.

But there were few signs from what Obama and Mr. Xi said in public that they had met the vital question dogging relations between the two most powerful countries on earth: can China realize its strategic ambitions without challenging American interests that Washington is unready to relinquish?

Xi insisted at a press conference that “the Pacific Ocean is broad enough to accommodate the development of both China and the United States,” and that “the two countries should work together to contribute to security in Asia.”

But such reassurances cannot disguise the fact that Beijing and Washington are tussling for leadership in Asia, as security issues play an ever greater role in their bilateral relationship.

That rivalry illustrates how “in the mix of competition and cooperation, the competitive element has clearly been predominant in recent years, and it will stay like that,” says David Shambaugh, a China expert at George Washington University in Washington. “It is the new normal.”

At every opportunity during his visit here, Obama repeated his mantra that “we want China to do well.” But not everybody in the Chinese government believes him; many remain convinced that Washington is intent on containing China and stymieing its rise.

“China’s dream is to be a superpower, and America’s dream is to be the only superpower,” argues Shen Dingli, a foreign affairs analyst at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Those dreams conflict.”

At root, adds Wang Dong, who teaches international politics at Peking University, “the fundamental problem facing US-China relations is an accumulation of strategic mistrust on both sides.”

Common ground on climate change

Obama and Xi did manage to find common ground on climate change. As leaders of the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, responsible for nearly 40 percent of global emissions, they have been under heavy international pressure to lead by example in the run-up to next year’s climate treaty summit in Paris.

Xi pledged that China’s CO2 emissions would peak around 2030 – the first time that Beijing has set such a target. Obama promised that by 2025 the US will have reduced its emissions by 23-26 percent of 2005 levels – twice as much as Washington had previously offered.

That kind of agreement, along with two others forged between Obama and Xi, is what the Chinese like to call “win-win.” A deal to ease visas for business and student travel will be good for both nations’ citizens, and a push for a bilateral investment treaty – making it easier for Chinese firms to buy US companies and for US firms to invest in China – was not too hard to realize.

But as for who should be top dog in Asia, neither side appeared to abandon  its ambitions. China has alarmed Washington over the last year by aggressively pushing territorial claims in the South China Sea, declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over Japanese-owned islands, and setting up a regional investment bank that appears to challenge existing institutions such as the Asian Development Bank.

The US has angered China and fueled fears that it is trying to undermine China's rise by pursuing a diplomatic and military “rebalancing” toward Asia, boosting Washington’s presence in the region. That has included efforts to negotiate a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade treaty that excludes China.

Beijing and Washington are also at odds over US allegations that the Chinese government (or actors allied to it) have hacked into the computers of American companies to steal trade secrets, lax intellectual property protection, and US arms sales to Taiwan.

None of these irritants have plunged the two giants’ relationship into crisis, and officials on both sides of the Pacific point to $600 billion in annual bilateral trade as a stabilizing framework that means it is in neither government’s interest to allow ties to deteriorate too far.

But the mood of the relationship has recently been “fairly tense and rather alienated,” says Dr. Shambaugh.

Obama said he and his Chinese counterpart had engaged in “candid and very productive conversations,” but how far they will lighten the bilateral mood remains to be seen.

“Trust begins with interactions and communications – frank exchanges on a personal level between top leaders,” says Dr. Wang. “A summit won’t resolve all the problems, but it might re-set some fundamentals."

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