Last month, US President Barack Obama was in Hangzhou for a G-20 meeting and, while there, held what is likely to be his last substantive bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The two men may meet again at the Nov. 19-10 APEC leaders’ meeting in Lima, Peru but by then there will be a new American president waiting in the wings.
During the G-20 meeting last month, Obama picked up a theme from his first meeting with the Chinese president in June 2013, a theme that he then dropped for three years.
This was Xi’s proposal of a new model of major country relationship between China and the US, a proposal that the Chinese leader said was meant to avoid the “Thuycidides Trap” which says conflict between a rising power and the established power is inevitable.
Obama evidently liked it and said in Sunnylands that it was important to “forge a new model of cooperation between countries based on mutual interest and mutual respect”.
The Chinese said there were three points to the new model: No conflict, no confrontation; respect for each other’s core interests and win-win cooperation.
The US found those unacceptable, especially the point about respecting core interests, since China’s definition of its core interests includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are disputed with Japan, and the South China Sea, almost all of which China claims.
Respect for China’s core interests would have meant putting China’s interests ahead of those of American allies, such as Japan and the Philippines.
So, ever since the Sunnylands meeting, the US has not mentioned the “new model”.
But China continued to talk about it at every Obama-Xi meeting.
Thus, after Xi’s state visit last year, the White House issued a “Fact Sheet” in which it summarized issues the two sides could work on, such as cyber security, climate change, Afghanistan, peacekeeping, nuclear security, ocean conservation and people-to-people exchanges.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued an “Outcome List” of issues where the two sides had agreed to cooperate.
Much of it was similar to the American list. But at very top of the Chinese list was something not mentioned by the US: the New Model.
The American silence on the “new model” continued until Hangzhou.
There, Obama held another press conference and unexpectedly said: “Consistent with the notion of a new model for relations between our countries, what I think we’ve been able to achieve is practical and constructive efforts where our interests intersect and a candid discussion of those areas where we differ, and our ability to manage them in a way that does not put the bilateral relationship at risk.”
So, at his last substantive meeting with Xi, the American leader returned to the concept of a “new model” which he had embraced and then shunned more than three years ago.
His emphasis was on managing the overall relationship, rather than China’s requirement of respect for core interests.
Not mentioning the New Model after having accepted it looked like the US realized that it had made a mistake.
Mentioning it one last time, in a way, is to bury it. It is seriously questionable whether his successor would maintain the pretense of a new model of relations with China.
Of course, China is the world’s second most powerful country.
That alone means the US has to deal with it in a way different from the way it deals with other countries.
The US has paid a high economic price for policies that allowed China to rise.
A look at Donald Trump’s supporters makes it clear that US manufacturing jobs were exported to China as a result of a combination of American policy and the greed of US capitalists, who wanted to extract every penny of profit possible, regardless of the loss of US jobs.
Washington needs to be much more aware in dealing with China of the consequences of its policies.
What’s good for China is not necessarily good for the US.
With the rise of anti-China sentiment in America, China is bracing itself for a period in which relations will deteriorate, regardless of who becomes president.
For decades now, the Chinese have been describing the relationship with a slogan: “Even if it’s good it won’t be too good, and even if it’s bad it won’t be too bad.”
Recently, however, the Chinese have dropped the second half of that saying.
There is still a cap on how good the relationship can be. But now, it seems, the deterioration of the relationship is open-ended.
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