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Obama, China and the expectations gap

Chinese-US relationship remains a simultaneously friendly and cool affair as common understandings remain elusive

President Barack Obama’s delicate balancing act on Asia — attempting to elevate Washington’s footprint in the region while keeping its rivalry with China in check — has continued this week with a diplomatic dance in Beijing. But with U.S. foreign policy overshadowed by events in the Middle East, and with differences between Beijing and Washington seemingly unresolved, an expectations gap is likely to remain no matter how charming Obama’s offensive is in China.

In 2011, the Obama administration launched a well-publicized effort to pivot U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. Administration officials have called this the Pacific Century, and some in the Obama administration believe the Asia-Pacific region — which contains half the world’s population and nearly 60 percent of its GDP — is the most consequential for U.S. interests in the years to come.

Yet conflicts in traditional theaters of U.S. influence, particularly the Middle East, have occupied Washington’s attention since Obama’s last visit to China in 2009. That has led Asia experts to wonder whether the reorientation was still a priority.

To dispel such notions ahead of the president’s trip, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, said on Friday, “The president remains deeply committed to his Asia rebalancing strategy, and its implementation will remain a top priority throughout the second term.”

The contours of that strategy were expected to have figured into Obama’s private meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping Tuesday evening on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. As Obama walked in to Zhong Nan Hai palace, Xi’s residence, he marked an upbeat tone, telling a pool of reporters, “When the U.S. and China are able to work together effectively, the whole world benefits.”

Since Xi met with Obama in 2013 in California, China has talked often about a new type of great power relations, but Obama arrived in Beijing as U.S. skepticism continues over exactly how those relations are defined.

Around the time of the 2013 summit, a senior Obama administration official, speaking on background, said, “We have in a number of senior-level discussions over the last few months heard the Chinese talk about a new type of relationship … I think it’s important to ask the [Chinese side] how they would define this expression … If we are going to establish a new type of relationship, what we would like to see is something more concrete in terms of cooperation.”

Writing about the understanding of that new model, Susan V. Lawrence, a China analyst with the Congressional Research Service, said (PDF) that a lack of agreement over the terms of the bilateral relationship risks creating “a potentially significant gap in expectations.”

From Washington’s perspective, the rise of China under Xi has elicited both promise and caution.

“For the United States and much of the rest of the world, the awakening of Xi’s China provokes two different reactions: excitement, on the one hand, about what a stronger, less corrupt China could achieve, and significant concern, on the other hand, over the challenges an authoritarian, militaristic China might pose to the U.S.-backed liberal order,” wrote Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Washington’s ‘rebalance,’ or ‘pivot,’ to Asia represents more than simply a response to China’s more assertive behavior. It also reflects the United States’ most closely held foreign policy values: freedom of the seas, the air and space; free trade; the rule of law; and basic human rights,” she added.

On the one hand, both countries desire a closer relationship, especially on economic and cultural matters, demonstrated by Monday’s announcement of a deal to increase visas for citizens visiting the other nation.

But the Asian rebalance is marked just as much by confusion between the two and disagreement over still contentious issues. In addition to concerns over human rights, the U.S. has talked often about participating with China in a norms-based economy, something it believes Beijing violates with insufficient protection of intellectual property rights and distortive economic practices like currency manipulation and trade protectionism.

“On the one hand, China is a large (and potentially huge) export market for the United States,” wrote Wayne M. Morrison a China analyst with the Congressional Research Service. “However, some analysts contend that China maintains a number of distortive economic policies (such as protectionist industrial policies and an undervalued currency) that undermine U.S. economic interests.”

But the U.S. is likely to find a cool welcome in Beijing to its hopes of expanding its own foreign policy vision, especially under Xi. The Chinese leader has sought to make his country more assertive on the global scene, a potential departure from the long-held Chinese foreign policy preference, “to hide brightness and cherish obscurity,” elucidated by former reforming premier Deng Xiaoping.

For U.S. policymakers, Xi’s foreign policy has stood out for its aggressiveness, particularly in maritime disputes over territory in the South China Sea. Japan and Philippines, the countries with the largest disputes with China, are major U.S. allies, and the U.S. has reacted negatively to recent Chinese moves to lay its claim to the territories. Largely alongside those efforts, the U.S. has increased its troop rotations with its allies the region and has kept up a longer-term focus of maintaining a larger military presence in the region.

And while economic integration between the two countries is an ongoing priority, cooperation even on that front is always one step away from perceived confrontation as well.

“The Obama administration hopes to achieve forward movement in pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the multilateral trade agreement on which the credibility and sustainability of the ‘rebalance to Asia’ heavily depends,” writes Jonathan Pollack, a Chinese expert at the Brookings Institution.

A cornerstone of U.S. economic hopes in the region comes in the form of the TPP, the proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 nations that would create a free trade zone for about 40 percent of the world’s GDP. Yet the TPP, which excludes China, is part of the larger U.S. effort to shore up its influence in the region. And China appears cool on the prospect, skeptical that the agreement with several of China’s regional rivals is part of a broader code word for America’s purportedly covetous designs on China’s backyard. 

As far as regional economic integration goes, China is much more intent on promoting a proposed Free-Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which took a small step closer to becoming a reality when Xi announced that several nations, including the U.S. and Russia, agreed to study the initiative.  

The FTAAP is one example of what many believe to be Chinese moves to countered U.S. attempts to increases it influence in the region. China has, for example, been instrumental in the creation of the New Development Bank, a counter to the World Bank and IMF led by the BRICS nations. China, additionally, continues to eye increased regional investment through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

On security, China continues to utilize the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a six-member regional security bloc including Russia that Beijing helped found in 2001, and has talked about helping to create a new Asian-Pacific security architecture that excludes the U.S.

Nonetheless, analysts believe that ultimately either U.S. of Chinese moves to shore up influence in the region are likely to fall short of their respective national interests if regional integration does not sufficiently include both Washington and Beijing.

“Despite economic controversies – Chinese companies’ market access in the United States, China’s industrial policies favoring state-owned enterprises, the establishment of China-led AIIB, and the U.S.-led TPP — no international institution that aims to promote global economic integration can truly thrive if it excludes either China or the United States,” wrote Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution.

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