THE landmark summit between US President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping may well be described as “a qualified success” because it went smoothly on friendly terms, not an insignificant feat considering the number of simmering issues that divided their two countries.
This was the collective view of most China watchers and analysts who discussed the results of the first face-to-face meeting of the two leaders in California last June 7 to 8. They noted that Obama and Xi spoke at length about those issues, such as cyber security, North Korea and the rising friction between China and US ally Japan in the East China Sea, but they didn’t discuss China’s territorial disputes with its Southeast Asian neighbors over some islands, islets, shoals in the South China Sea.
Nonetheless, they showed that they can work together when they agreed to working-level talks on the issue of cyber security and to phase out hydro-fluorocarbons, the mega contributors to climate change found mostly in made-in-China refrigerators and air conditioners. And Xi was seen “effusive and confident” and raised his frequent theme of creating a “new type of great power relationship. ” This was interpreted by analysts as his call for China and the United States to avoid conflicts that plagued both nations.
The summit, according to A. Greer Meisels of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, “could be seen as successful by going off without a hitch and avoiding missteps that have clouded many previous US-China meetings.” Meisels said that Obama and Xi “are taking this relationship very seriously …But this is obviously just a first step. So whether this generates additional momentum and additional positive knock-on effects, I think it’s still a little early to tell.”
Prof. Di Dongsheng, vice director at Beijing’s Renmin Center for China’s Foreign Strategy Studies, described the meeting of Xi with Obama as “warm and optimistic.” He said that “this time we have a new leader who is more confident, mature and natural than his predecessors.” On the other hand, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that Beijing “has spared no effort to repeatedly assure other countries that it is in pursuit of peace and development.”
In my own view, this irenical statement aiming at peace will most likely raise a lot of officials’ eyebrows in the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Japan, which have protested the “bullying” by China in their territorial disputes in South China Sea, East China Sea, and West Philippine Sea.
Three other China watchers gave contrasting views about the Obama-Xi summit. Huge White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, saw the summit as “perhaps the last, best chance for today’s major powers to break history’s ruinous pattern and lay the foundations for an accommodative peace.” (I think he was referring to history’s biggest wars which occurred when a rising country challenged an established leading power.)
White pointed out that “all the talks about cooperation, economic interdependence, and flashpoints such as cyber-spying and maritime disputes are merely symptoms of a deeper rivalry between China and the US, not its cause. The two Presidents must try to reconcile their countries’ conflicting ambitions in Asia.”
What White meant was their “…dangerously incompatible ideas about who will lead in the Asian Century…The US expects to remain Asia’s primary power, perpetuating a US-led order which has long upheld stability. China expects to take America’s place, regaining its historic regional pre-eminence.” He suggested some kind of mutual accommodation between America and China can avert these dangers.
For Mr. Xi, White said, “accommodation means accepting that even as China overtakes the US economically, Washington will continue to balance Beijing’s power in Asia and impose limits on its conduct. For example, the US cannot allow China to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors with armed force. Accommodation for the US means allowing China to act as a true equal partner in leadership, not merely a responsible stakeholder in an American-led order. If the US is not willing to treat China as an equal, it must confront it as a rival with all the deadly risks that entails!”
David Shambaugh, who’s reputed as well-disposed toward the Middle Kingdom, saw China differently. “In essence,” he said, “China is a very narrow-minded, self-interested, realist state, seeking only to maximize its own national interests and power. It cares little for global governance and enforcing global standards of behavior, except its much-vaunted doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of countries. Its economic policies are mercantilist and its diplomacy is passive. China is also a lonely strategic power, with no allies and experiencing distrust and strained relationships with much of the world.”
And, unlike the views of White and Shambaugh, Martin Jacques, a visiting professor at Renmin University in Beijing, The International Center for Chinese Studies, Aichi University, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, and The Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, predicted the rise of China as a global power.
“The rise of China,” Jacques wrote in a book, “will not necessarily result in military conflict –and for the sake of humanity, we must fervently hope that it does not – but it is a sobering thought that the ramifications of China’s rise for the world will be incomparably greater than those of Germany and Japan, even accounting for the differences in historical times.”
Well, if Jacques’ prediction comes true, we can only wonder how the second half of the 21st century will look like when China replaces America as the world’s new superpower.
– Nestor Mata