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The US and China: Acting in concert, while agreeing to disagree

This week's APEC summit in Beijing was buoyed by successes and marked by ongoing tensions

The United States and China agreed this week to ease tensions in the North Pacific, reduce tariffs on technology products and set new goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — highlighting the ability of the two superpowers to cooperate despite growing their growing strategic competition. 

"The Pacific Ocean is broad enough to accommodate the prowess of both the United States and China," Chinese President Xi Jinping said Wednesday, after meeting with President Barack Obama at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.

The agreements reached between the world’s two largest economies were widely welcomed given the recent  swings in their relationship between prickly and productiveBy far the most significant of these agreements was the climate accord, which U.S. and Chinese officials had been discreetly working on for months. It calls on the U.S. to, by 2025, be producing 26 to 28 percent less  carbon gas emissions than it had produced in 2005, while China would cap its output growth by 2030.

According to Michael Levi, a climate-change expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, the landmark agreement suggests the two powers are "increasingly comfortable" collaborating on issues of global magnitude.

"Rolling them out together with the United States says that China is increasingly comfortable being seen to act as part of an international effort," wrote Levi. "Indeed that may be part of the point here. ... Amidst broad tensions between the United States and China, climate change is increasingly an area of relatively constructive dialogue, which makes it worth highlighting. A joint announcement does exactly that."

Xi stressed the same point on Wednesday, saying: "When China and the U.S. work together, we can become an anchor of world stability and a propeller of world peace."

But dueling trade agreement proposals being promoted by the two sides at the same summit underscored the extent to which the U.S. and China also consider each other competitors, each vying for more influence in a region brimming with economic opportunity.

For the United States, there were ongoing efforts behind the scenes of the APEC summit to finalize a proposed free trade agreement — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — with 11 other nations that would create a massive free-trade zone.

Not surprisingly, China views the TPP --  from which it is excluded -- with strong suspicion, and Beijing used the APEC summit to promote its own proposal for a regional economic plan, the Free-Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP).

"This is a message for the U.S.," Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told TIME of the FTAAP. "China wants to be at the center of economic life in the region."

The FTAAP is but one example of China attempting to counter U.S. moves to increase its own influence in the Pacific, analysts say. China has already been instrumental in the creation of the New Development Bank, a counter to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and is keen to increase regional investment through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

"China’s decision to fund a new multilateral bank [AIIB] rather than give more to existing ones reflects its exasperation with the glacial pace of global economic governance reform," the Economist wrote. "The same motivation lies behind the New Development Bank established by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)."

Other areas of disagreement between the two countries — such as China’s human-rights record, the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and disputes over currency — were only addressed in carefully calibrated diplomatic language during the summit.

The APEC forum both demonstrated that the world's two most powerful economic actors are capable of forging a productive bilateral relationship, and served up a reminder that their relationship will be defined by managed tension for the foreseeable future.

"I believe that President Xi and I have a common understanding on how the relationship between our two countries should move forward," Obama said at the end of his China trip. "Where we have disagreements, we will be candid about our intentions, and we will work to narrow those differences where possible."

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