November 14, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Graham Webster: Holding on to an optimistic US-China moment

The U.S. and Chinese governments made a big splash this week with a joint announcement on efforts to combat climate change that surprised even the most optimistic observers. But the overall significance of President Barack Obama's visit to Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and a state visit with President Xi Jinping is still in question -- as is the outcome of Obama's trip to the region.

     The climate announcement and other new efforts produced an upbeat moment in U.S.-China relations at a time when mutual suspicion and negativity have been on the rise in both capitals. Now the question is what progress was made, and whether this will be enough to establish a "new normal" in bilateral relations.

     First things first: The U.S.-China climate announcement is enormously important. Though analysts in both countries knew the governments had been working on climate issues since April 2013, when they set up a Climate Change Working Group, the announcement Wednesday far exceeded expectations. Though some have said that China's carbon emissions goal was not ambitious enough, and that Obama has little power to enact the new U.S. targets, the announcement still marks a breakthrough.

     The U.S. and China have overcome a long stalemate that contributed to the failure of the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. Now the two largest economies and carbon emitters, one a developed country and the other a developing country, have committed to work together to make next year's follow-up U.N. climate change summit in Paris a success. These governments have overcome differences to combine their influence and work toward an international deal that would benefit all of humanity. This is a very big deal.

     While the climate announcement received well-deserved positive news coverage, it was the result of sustained diplomatic maneuvering over many months, not a spontaneous breakthrough between Obama and Xi in Beijing. The other "deliverables" the U.S. side announced were similarly teed-up by the bureaucracy on both sides.

Virtues of patience

A U.S.-China deal to issue each other's citizens 10-year visas under some circumstances was a welcome step, but not a spur of the moment outcome. The previous U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, made streamlining the visa process for Chinese travelers a hallmark of his tenure. An agreement to move forward on negotiating information technology tariff reductions at the World Trade Organization is significant and welcome news for U.S. companies, but it has been under discussion for a very long time in bilateral talks. And two important new military-to-military agreements have also been a long time coming.

     Nevertheless, the Obama and Xi governments should be commended for establishing new confidence-building measures at a time when regional security disagreements are obvious. The new code of conduct for encounters between the two militaries is especially valuable because it addresses contacts both at sea and in the air. U.S.-China naval dialogue and cooperation has historically been stronger than in other areas, despite the fact that U.S. surveillance planes encounter Chinese military aircraft routinely in the region.

     A New York Times story called Obama's time in China "unusually productive," and a lot of good news was made public. But what real progress happened this week, and what announcements might have been hoped for but did not emerge? Plenty of key bilateral issues were in talking points but not in the announcements.

     Though there is reason to be cautiously optimistic following the diplomatic gymnastics that allowed Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet on the sidelines of the APEC meeting, it is unknown whether China and Japan will follow up on their joint statement. Will they truly develop the crisis mechanisms that the U.S. government has pushed for to avoid the risk of accidents escalating into broader conflict? The Obama-Xi meetings produced no visible progress on this or similar issues.

     Some analysts had expected more attention to be paid to the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty negotiations, perhaps including a timeline for completion. Those talks were rejuvenated in July 2013, when China agreed to a new approach, but they have again stalled as U.S. trade negotiators focus on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Chinese side makes slow progress on the BIT. Yet the BIT is important because two-way investment is an area of clear mutual interest that bypasses the toxic national-level politics on each side and shows companies and communities how each country benefits from stable relations with the other. While Obama was in Beijing no real progress on the BIT negotiations was reported, and we can expect little to happen until the U.S. government successfully concludes negotiations on the TPP, or gives up on it.

     On cybersecurity, the U.S. has failed to gain the reinstatement of a bilateral cyber working group that China suspended in May in response to U.S. indictments of Chinese military hackers. Unless the two countries are engaged in lively secret dialogue on cybersecurity, the risk of dangerous and hard-to-manage incidents involving critical, life-sustaining infrastructure will grow.

Watershed or wet blanket

In short, though significant progress was announced while Obama was in China, the prominent nagging issues of the day remain unresolved, and what actually happened behind closed doors is unclear -- as it should be.

     The answers to two questions will reveal whether this summit was historic or merely episodic. First, will the presidents meet again soon enough, and focus their governments successfully enough, to prepare another series of even more powerful announcements? The results in the news today can be credited to the substantive preparatory work -- and the spirit -- of an informal Obama-Xi summit in California in June 2013. If new efforts were successfully launched this week, we could see real breakthroughs, even in Obama's remaining two years in office. If this is to be accomplished, however, the next meeting cannot wait another 18 months.

     Second, have Obama and Xi gone beyond the important but relatively accessible topics of cooperation and begun a frank, strategic discussion about the future of the Asia-Pacific? Ministers and bureaucrats properly motivated can build bridges, but presidents thinking historically can move mountains. Only if these two leaders have begun an open-minded conversation, based on the reality of China's rise and America's persistence in a changing world, can they say they've given it their best.

     It will take at least a few months -- more likely years or decades -- to assess this summit with any kind of clarity. For now, however, the two leaders and their teams have produced a moment of optimism. Climate change is the greatest challenge requiring the greatest cooperation for humanity today. For these two countries to signal that they intend to lead the world together to face this challenge is remarkable.

     Obama's trip to the Asia-Pacific region is not over, however. This moment of optimism could easily be overshadowed by acute conflict over territorial disputes. Suspicion among Western countries over China's intentions in the region and Xi's friendliness with Russian President Vladimir Putin, will likely put some leaders on edge at the follow-up meeting of the Group of 20 big economies in Brisbane, Australia. To fight the tendency toward mutual suspicion, the U.S. and Chinese governments need to show sustained effort and take consistent, concrete actions so that positive moments become routine.

Graham Webster is a senior fellow at the Yale Law School China Center, specializing in U.S.-China relations.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.