US Perspective

"New Model of Great Power Relations"

Two Competing Visions of Asian Regional Order at Sunnylands

A number of commentators in the United States and China argued that the summit meeting between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in Sunnylands in early June represented a potential turning point in US-China relations. The meeting was never intended to be that. As White House briefers emphasized, the point was for the two leaders to get to know each other and prepare for a hard slog working through tough issues ranging from North Korea to cyber-espionage. The relaxed setting and sunny smiles certainly sent the signal that the two leaders were ready to roll up their sleeves and solve problems together. The language of the two leaders in their joint press conference also quietly revealed the strikingly different visions each has for the future of the bilateral relationship and the future of order in East Asia.

Xi Jinping’s vision built on his theme of a new model of great power relations. What exactly that new model means is a subject of some debate among scholars in both the United States and China, but the contours seem apparent enough. First and foremost, the point is to avoid the kind of violent collisions between rising and status quo powers that led to two world wars in the last century. Obama, no doubt, would agree with that. Moreover, under Xi’s new model of great power relations China and the United States would seek to solve problems together in Asia and more broadly wherever possible. That too would square with Obama’s hopes for US-China relations.

Other aspects of the new model of great power relations being advanced by Xi, however, could be more problematic for Washington. He, no doubt, aims for relations built on the premise that Beijing thought was behind the November 2009 US-China joint statement, in which Obama and Hu Jintao promised mutual respect for each other’s “core interests.” To Washington, this ill-considered language simply meant an expression of sensitivity to Chinese equities on Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet. To Beijing, however, the statement implied virtual acceptance of spheres of influence, particularly in the wake of the Lehman shock and anticipation of American weakness. In the Hu-Obama summit in January 2011, the US side insisted on striking all references to “core interests” from the joint statement, but Xi wants the principle reaffirmed under his new model. The goal is not a “G-2” (as proffered by Jeffrey Sachs or Fred Bergsten) since that would imply shared responsibility for management of the global economy, but instead a bipolar condominium in which Beijing and Washington each have effective vetoes over the other’s major actions in Asia. This is not an unreasonable goal for a rising continental power trying to reclaim its position of pre-eminence in Asia, but hardly one palatable to the prevailing power in the region today.

Though Xi articulated none of this at Sunnylands, there are several assumptions that likely inform his vision of the future regional order in Asia. First, as an enthusiastic student of Marxist thought and dialectic materialism, he would see great significance in the fact that China now trades more with almost all US allies in the region than the United States does. As CSIS polling of regional elites demonstrated in 2009, the prevailing Chinese vision of the future order also emphasizes the principle of non-interference in internal affairs over the acceptance of universal principles of good governance, political liberty, and the rule of law. In addition, where Beijing’s vision of the future order is premised on multipolarity in the international system, it aims at bipolarity in Asia between the United States and China. This requires the marginalization of Japan. Japan is presented repeatedly by Beijing as an isolated nation in violation of the understandings at Potsdam. (In fact, polling outside of China and Korea generally finds that Japan is the most trusted of the major powers in the region). Finally, lying behind the vision of a bipolar structure of great power relations in Asia is the assumption that the United States is the declining pole—not ripe for challenging yet, but with the material forces of history having taken hold.

Like Xi Jinping, Obama truly wants to avoid conflict with China and probably is confident Beijing and Washington will be able to navigate the difficult waters ahead. As his counterpart, he is committed to working together on problems in a pragmatic way. And, as Obama accurately attests, the United States and China do have a stake in each other’s success. However, his statements at Sunnyland implied a different future order in Asia. Although he generally loathes using the rhetoric of George W. Bush, Obama reverted to the Bush formula for US-China relations, describing a “cooperative, constructive, and candid” approach to Beijing. (The Obama administration had originally dropped the word “candid” and replaced it with “positive,” but that was out at Sunnylands). Obama was clearly having none of the concert-of-power flavor of the new model of great power relations, having experienced several important teachable moments of his own in the aftermath of the 2009 joint statement. In general, the Obama administration has followed the strategic approach begun by Clinton and Bush, actively engaging China, but also trying to hedge, dissuade, deter, and shape it through close ties to allies and like-minded states in the region. Under this vision, Japan is a major power to be respected in the future order of Asia (despite occasional problems with historical revisionism and the somewhat shabby protocol treatment of Prime Minister Abe compared with President Xi). Meanwhile, under the American vision of Asia-Pacific community-building the guiding principles should be “21st Century” universal norms such as rule-of-law, just governance, and political and economic openness—not non-interference in internal affairs.

Far from welcoming an a priori strategic understanding with China on spheres of influence to reinforce stability before America declines, Obama does not accept the premise that America will decline (despite what his critics in the Republican Party charge). Indeed, in the American worldview most of our key allies accept a regional order based on universal norms and reject (usually) the premise of American decline. Obama’s vision of future regional order and US-China relations would be peaceful, but somehow evocative of John Foster Dulles’ peaceful evolution strategy of 1958 that Mao lambasted at the time. In short, in the American vision China changes itself much more than China changes the system.

In many respects, these competing visions of regional order have been just below the surface of US-China relations since at least 1949 and certainly since 1972, and Xi and Obama are not going to resolve them in one summit or even one term in office. It would, therefore, be a mistake to focus entirely on the discourse between Washington and Beijing when trying to judge the prospects for bilateral relations in the months and years ahead. No less important will be the way that developments in the region reinforce or alter the assumptions of Chinese and American leaders about the forces of history surrounding their bilateral relationship. The deterioration of US-Japan ties in the 1930s, for example, was as much about the collapse of European imperialism, the Great Depression, and the rise of nationalism and communism as it was about the discourse between Tokyo and Washington.

Obama and Xi will have a series of important summits in the coming year, including meetings on the margin of the G-20 in September and APEC and the East Asia Summit at the end of the year. But the stage for bilateral discourse will be set by other pivotal developments in Asia that occur over the same period. Among the most important to watch are:

  • North Korea : Pyongyang’s brazen declaration of nuclear weapons status has led Beijing to increase pressure on the North, aligning the United States and China more closely on the issue than in the recent past. Chinese pressure may ebb once Pyongyang agrees to once again pretend it is committed to the principle of denuclearization of the peninsula, but it is also possible that North Korean unpredictability (or more accurately, predictable escalation) could alter the great power dynamics around the peninsula. Alternately, a growing North Korean threat unchecked by China could cause tighter security cooperation among US allies, introducing a new, though perhaps unavoidable source of friction in US-China relations. The government of Park Geun-hye thinks change in China’s role on the peninsula is possible. The diplomacy of the coming six months may tell whether that is so.
  • Japan : After victory in the July 21 Upper House election, Abe will reveal the real trajectory for Japanese politics in the months and years ahead. He is poised to have the most stable Japanese government since Koizumi Junichiro, but markets wonder whether the third arrow of structural reform in “Abenomics” will sustain the short-term higher growth triggered by the first two arrows of quantitative easing and stimulus. Seoul and Washington are also hoping that an energized Abe cabinet will focus on building stronger relations in Asia and moving beyond the contentious history issues that have complicated Japan’s regional diplomacy in Northeast Asia. The new cabinet line-up and economic, political, and diplomatic moves of Abe in the second half of 2013 will demonstrate whether the Chinese or American image of Japan’s role in Asia will prevail.
  • TPP : The Obama administration has declared its intention to have the Trans-Pacific Partnership substantially completed and to pass Trade Promotion Authority in the Congress this year. With Japan in TPP, the trade negotiations are now the most substantial in the world (with the Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership further behind in the rear view mirror at this point). Momentum on TPP would reinforce the open, rules-based, economic order being advanced by the United States in Asia and might encourage Beijing to continue shifting from criticism of the negotiations to acceptance that it is a critical building block that China may itself someday join.
  • Myanmar : Burma’s remarkable, though still reversible transition towards democracy will reverberate across ASEAN and Asia as a whole. Within the country the transitions of Indonesia and Korea from authoritarian to democratic rule are inspiring, and Burma’s successful example would have a further demonstration effect in countries like Cambodia and Laos. With 55 million people and a national identity built around a new democratic identity, Burma could tilt the normative center of gravity in ASEAN and with it the broader embrace of universal norms in Asia as a whole. But the challenges are immense, ranging from poor governance to unresolved resource-sharing issues behind the country’s ethnic insurgencies. The unlikely partnership of Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu kyi will be tested heavily in the year ahead.
  • The Pivot : The Obama administration’s trumpeted “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia excited American maritime allies but alarmed Beijing in 2012, but now in 2013 American allies are asking whether a new secretary of state and secretary of defense will continue their predecessors’ intensive Asian diplomacy. The answer is yes and no. Asian summitry, from the East Asian Summit to Shangri-La and the ASEAN Regional Forum are now permanently affixed on American leaders’ calendars. Asia is simply too important to US interests for any deviation from the standard set for attendance in the first Obama term. But sequestration and a renewed fascination (horror) at events in the Middle East will tax the attention and resources of the United States, while regional scrutiny of the new national security team in Washington over the coming months will create an indelible impression that will color Obama’s whole second term. In the larger question of regional order, American staying power is one of the most important variables being measured from Colombo to Tokyo.
    In short, to understand how the contrasting images of regional order presented by Obama and Xi in Sunnyland will be resolved, watch US-China summitry, but keep a peripheral eye on the fabric of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.