The meeting between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a desert retreat near Palm Springs, California, last weekend caused hardly a stir in Russia – which is focused on the unrest in Turkey, clashes in the Middle East, relations with the United States and domestic political developments – even though US-Chinese relations are one of the most important factors influencing Russia’s future.
The US and Chinese leaders met in an informal setting accompanied by limited staff. This was the first such meeting in years, possibly since Henry Kissinger’s personal diplomacy helped win over China and ensured Washington’s victory in the Cold War over 40 years ago. It is rumored that the US and China are considering a new kind of a strategic relationship. Where should they start?
China is still a blank spot on Obama’s political canvas, but not for lack of effort. His visit to Beijing at the beginning of his first term was one of his least successful. The Chinese leadership cunningly neutralized Obama’s image as a leader in a league of his own, treating him with respect but ultimately as just another US president. It was a heavy blow, especially because Obama hoped to usher in a new chapter in bilateral relations.
Next, the White House boss, who has taken a peaceful approach to other issues in Asia, opted for an aggressive policy toward China. The administration’s pivot to Asia, which amounted to shifting US military and political resources to the region, alarmed Beijing, which rightly saw the move as directed against China. Paradoxically, for China, Obama unexpectedly became a more aggressive partner than his predecessor, George W. Bush, although the experience of other governments was quite different. Bush Jr. began his presidency as extremely hostile to China, only to become one of the most pro-Chinese US presidents later.
The economic symbiosis of China and the United States, which became indivisible during the Bush era, has forced American officials to tread carefully. It is no coincidence that the main architect of US policy toward China under Bush was not the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State, but Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who oversaw strategic dialogue on the economy and finance.
Everything changed when Obama took office. The mutual dependence is still there, but the global crisis has cast it in a new light. Both countries now see it not as a boon, but as a burden with which they are saddled. Washington is now searching for ways to reimagine its global leadership role, because Obama believes that the old ways are no longer acceptable or effective.
China’s future role in the world is unclear. Everybody expects that it will be very powerful and a legitimate contender for global dominance. But most experts also agree that global hegemony is not the Chinese way, and requires capabilities that China is unlikely to develop, as well as an ideology that would be acceptable to other countries.
Ideology is especially important because China’s ideological influence can only be effective within its cultural sphere: East and Southeast Asia. Beijing cannot ideologically challenge the West in Europe, Latin America or even Eurasia.
This does not mean that China and the United States will never clash. Asia is the key region in today’s world, and global development will largely depend on it. So a clash of interests in Asia, where China believes it has the right to assert itself, could provoke global tensions. In other words, if China resists the growing US presence in Asia, the US will most likely try to harm China’s interests in other regions.
Growing global instability has left China and the US feeling vulnerable, although in different ways. China fears turbulence because it is politically engaged in the world and depends on foreign markets economically. The US is looking for an opportunity to reduce its involvement in global affairs in order to focus on domestic issues, but without losing sight of global priorities. The US political establishment is gradually accepting the fact that the country can no longer shoulder the excessive burden it has lived with until now. The situation is further complicated by a state of general unpredictability in the world.
The long conversation between Obama and Xi does not mean that they will agree to chart a new course, because fundamental and lasting relations are objectively impossible between any two countries in the current global situation. Rather, they have negotiated a truce in an attempt to minimize risks. Both countries are aware of the risks before them and believe that it would be best not to ratchet up tensions at this stage.
It is unclear how long this will last. The first real test will be the 2016 US presidential election, when candidates will most likely offer diametrically opposed visions of US policy, including with respect to China. In the remaining three years, China and the US could try practicing what was described as “peaceful coexistence” during the Cold War.