By all accounts, Chinese President Xi Jinping was remarkably well prepared for his trip to the US, addressed US concerns in a major speech, in extraordinary meetings with US business leaders in Seattle, and in reaching several important bilateral agreements with his US counterpart Barack Obama. If Xi sought respect for China as a great power, the remarkable assembly of top US CEOs in Seattle and the White House welcome ceremony treating China no less than it would a US ally suggest he achieved that goal.
Xi’s visit took place at a moment of uncertainty in US policy toward China. Many of the assumptions that have guided US policy toward China from Richard Nixon to Obama are being called into doubt, by US businesses as well as strategic analysts.
The agreements reached on cyber security, progress on the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) and climate change at the summit could, if implemented, answer critics and help stabilize a volatile Sino-US relationship.
In his speech and meetings in Seattle, Xi sought to reassure. He emphasized that, “opening up is a basic state policy of China,” and pledged implementation of reforms to give the market a “decisive role” and to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors.”
While US CEOs and the Obama administration welcomed the new understandings on cyber security, in the US, skepticism remains about whether threats to cyber security will end.
Xi also heard many complaints from US high-tech firms that China’s new demands for proprietary information would complicate IT investment in China. These growing concerns about difficulties of doing business in China has led to a weakening of US business support for Sino-US ties, which has been a key pillar of the relationship.
The hope is that the cyber security accord, progress toward the BIT and Xi’s pledge to address “legitimate concerns” of foreign investors will restore business confidence.
On global issues like climate change, the Bretton Woods financial system, development, infectious diseases, terrorism and non-proliferation, there is growing partnership and cooperation.
Xi’s announced commitment to a cap-and-trade carbon scheme is emblematic of Sino-US climate partnership.
Even discounting US election-year rhetoric, there is a cloud hanging over Sino-US relations. The Xi-Obama summit laid the basis for enhancing Sino-US cooperation and better managing a number of differences. Considering that the heavily interdependent Sino-US relationship is undoubtedly the most important in the world, this has consequences for both the global and regional order.
Much depends on the degree to which Xi and Obama are able to match their words with deeds. Will China alter its regulatory practices and increase transparency to give US investors more confidence that they can succeed in the Chinese market? If so, that will brighten hopes for a robust BIT and build new momentum for the bilateral relationship.
On key security issues, apart from a confidence-building measure to improve air-to-air military communication, disagreements in regard to maritime issues in the South China Sea remain.
One problem in assessing Sino-US ties is that the bilateral relationship is so large and so complex that it is unlikely to satisfy anyone. Neither side can afford to let a single area of disagreement undermine the larger relationship.
As Chinese officials pointed out during Xi’s visit, complexity, interdependence and mutual vulnerability of the world’s two biggest economies and two largest military powers leave “little choice but to cooperate.”
Xi’s state visit marked an important milestone in the relationship. The test, however is whether it reduces the trust deficit in Sino-US ties so that Obama’s successor in 2017 continues a policy that is more cooperative than competitive.
The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4. firstname.lastname@example.org