China-US: Challenges in a multifaceted relationship

February 10, 2015 09:13
The US and China have different ideas about their role in the Asian region. Photo: Bloomberg

When Barack Obama was in Beijing in November for the APEC summit, he met with leaders of 11 other countries – Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Peru, Chile and Brunei – and called for the early conclusion of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade grouping that is intended to set high standards for the 21st century.

Beijing, meanwhile, was busy pushing its own idea of a trade grouping, the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which would include all members of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

The APEC meeting ended with a communiqué calling for a two-year "strategic study" on issues related to the creation of FTAAP. But before that can happen, the Obama administration hopes the US Congress will vote to give the administration fast-track negotiating authority to help get the TPP off and running.

For years now, pundits have been pontificating about the various trade groupings under discussion, and describing the TPP as being aimed at China.

The US had denied any such motivation, but Obama revealed his thoughts when he delivered his State of the Union address recently.

"China wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region," Obama said. "That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field."

That's why, Obama said to loud applause from both sides of the aisle, "I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but are also fair. It’s the right thing to do."

In Obama's view, if the United States writes the rules for Asia, they will be fair and will protect American workers. But if China writes them, American workers and businesses will be put at a disadvantage and the playing field will not be level.

That, of course, is a proposition China doesn’t accept. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman responded by saying:

"We hope every party… will provide a fair, open, and transparent environment for economic cooperation and make a contribution to perfecting world trade regulations," she said, adding that what China wants is “mutual benefit and win-win" cooperation when it comes to trade.

This was a relatively mild response, considering that President Xi Jinping last April had called for an "Asia for Asians", seemingly according little if any role to the US in the region.

However, China is nothing if not pragmatic and it knows that while an Asia in which China is the dominant party may be the ultimate aim, Beijing is not strong enough yet to make this happen.

And so, in December, a senior Chinese official adopted an unusually conciliatory – even humble – posture when speaking in the US. Vice Premier Wang Yang, in Chicago for a meeting of the US-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, acknowledged that "the United States leads the world today".

And, he said, China is willing to join this US-led system and recognize American rules. But only months previously, Wang, while in Russia, had privately urged closer cooperation to counter "color revolutions" launched by the West.

China was also quick to welcome the release by the Obama administration of the 2015 National Security Strategy of the United States, which the official Xinhua news agency headlined as "US pledges to develop constructive relationship with China in new security strategy".

It pointed out that the document says that the United States "welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful and prosperous China".

But in 2011, when the then Chinese President Hu Jintao was in the United States on a state visit, the two sides issued a joint statement in which the US said that it "welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs".

Now, the words "strong" and "successful" are gone. Perhaps China's assertiveness in the last several years, especially in the East China Sea and South China Sea, has convinced the US that China is already too strong and playing a not always positive role in world affairs. Clearly, Washington now prefers China to be peaceful and stable.

President Xi Jinping has been invited to make a state visit to the US later this year. It will be interesting to see Washington's choice of words at that time.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.