With Lack of Major Breakthroughs in U.S.-China Relations, the Small Things Matter

With Lack of Major Breakthroughs in U.S.-China Relations, the Small Things Matter

One year into Xi Jinping’s presidency of China, it would be easy to despair about the current state of U.S.-China relations. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to push cooperation with Beijing on North Korea and climate change have fallen well short of Washington’s ambitions. China’s search for a “new relationship among major powers” has yet to materialize into something of real substance. And sparks are flying as the United States and its allies contend with a China that appears determined to enforce its claim to contested areas in the East and South China Seas in increasingly provocative and dangerous ways.

Domestic politics in both countries, moreover, offer little hope for significant improvement in the near term. Xi is emerging as a Chinese strongman—consolidating his personal power, cracking down on freedom of expression on the Internet, presiding over a significant expansion not only of China’s military capabilities but also of its objectives and pushing forward on a bold—but as yet unrealized—economic reform package. While there is the potential over the mid to longer term for a stronger China to be a better partner for the United States, unless the economic reforms fulfill their promise, few of Xi’s initial policy innovations will move the country in a direction that promotes greater cooperation.

At the same time, President Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia appears off-balance. Members of the U.S. military are speaking with different voices on both America’s understanding of China’s military objectives as well as the U.S. capacity to fulfill its obligations on the pivot. Maintaining a strong, cohesive U.S. military footing in Asia is essential, not only to support our allies as they deal with the reality of a far more assertive Chinese military, but also to advance our military-to-military cooperation with China. The economic pillar of the pivot is also in danger. Congress failed to provide the president with the trade promotion authority necessary to help ensure a smoother passage for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and doubts are being cast on whether the White House will be able to get the job done despite the efforts of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. Chinese officials from a number of government ministries and think tanks have indicated their interest in China eventually joining the TPP, a prospect that would greatly advance the U.S.-China relationship as well as the value of the TPP itself. U.S. credibility on both the trade and security fronts is now in doubt as a result of the lack of coherence and cohesiveness in Washington.

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