China and America at APEC: which one’s the superpower again?

November 19, 2014 by Vaughan Winterbottom

Last week’s APEC Economic Leaders’ meeting was more about the personalities of national leaders than concrete policy. Obama chewed gum, Putin ‘flirted’ with Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan and Xi fielded a pointy question from a New York Times reporter at a press conference: juicy side-stories dominated coverage of the event, at which multilateral policy pronouncements were few.

Such is de rigueur for the annual gab-fest, where the real substance comes from bilateral meets. This year, US-China talks yielded much to write home about, including a climate change agreement, a relaxation of visa rules, a trade deal on high-tech products and the promise of closer military communication. Both US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping can claim to have made a fruitful contribution to bilateral ties in Beijing.

Or can they? Relationships are built on more than just business deals, and a closer analysis of the meet suggests a marked swing in the power dynamic between the two presidents – and the governments they represent. This week, President Obama made not only a physical journey to Beijing, but also a metaphorical one. He engaged with President Xi on Xi’s own terms.

Mr Obama distanced himself from China’s mistreatment of ethnic minorities, made only weak references to Chinese hacking and found himself denying the laughable proposition that ‘hostile outside forces’ were driving recent protests in Hong Kong. China in the process managed to successfully shift the goalposts for acceptable discourse in the U.S.-China relationship. For sure, there was home-town advantage at play, but in striking such a conciliatory tone the US president implicitly weakened his country’s bargaining position on moral and regional leadership.

Real Deals?
Even those bilateral deals look skewed in China’s favour. The big-ticket item was a climate change agreement, negotiations over which were kept secret for months in the lead-up to the APEC summit. The agreement is deserving of the coverage it has received, if only for the US president’s commitment to cutting emissions by 26-28%from 2005 levels by 2025. This made good on a promise he gave in a 2009 United Nations accord and is a far more ambitious task than the 17% cut aimed for by 2020.

China’s target is much less ambitious. Mr Xi promised his country would reach peak emissions “around 2030.” That, in fact, is old news: Reuters reported on an American study back in 2011 that suggested the country’s emissions would peak between 2025-2030. Last week the China Academy of Social Sciences also noted that industrial emissions would peak in the same period, as the rate of urbanization in the country slowed – no change in energy mix necessary.

China’s ‘announcement’ on climate change, then, was more a statement of fact than a target. As a token gesture, it may encourage greater political will to act on the climate ahead of next year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, but it won’t make a discernible impact on constraining global temperature shifts.

Other bilateral deals were split fairly evenly in terms of benefits. Both sides promised to eliminate tariffs on information technology products, which should pave the way to expand the Information Technology Agreement (ITA) at the World Trade Organization. The US could see 60,000 jobs created from the deal, analyst Stephen Ezell of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told Politico. The gains to China are obvious – the country already accounts for 30% of the world’s technology exports.

The new visa rules, too, look set to be win-win. Businessmen and tourists traveling between the countries will be able to obtain visas valid for 10 years, up from one, while student visas will extent to five years from one. The US accounted for only 2% of a total of 100m outbound Chinese tourist trips last year – the new rules should see it grab a larger slice of that profitable pie. Chinese college and university students in the US – 235,000 of them at last count – will also win from the cancellation of hefty visa-reapplication fees.

And that’s about where the benefits ended for the US in Beijing. On the face of it, an agreement between the presidents to foster military communication and develop rules for sea and air encounters would seem a big step forward. Both sides have indicated they want to overcome mutual suspicions and avoid military confrontation.

It’s worth noting, however, that the vast majority of encounters and military activities to which the agreement applies take place in Asia. Chinese navy vessels do not perform surveys in the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), nor do American vessels force near-miss encounters with their Chinese counterparts.

The agreement thus involves more concessions from the US side and can only been seen as a gesture of goodwill from Beijing if one takes its navy’s bad behaviour in the East and South China Seas up until this point as standard. In short, Washington has voluntarily agreed to check its military activity in the Chinese sphere of influence, while Beijing has been applauded for essentially agreeing to respect international military norms.

Beijing’s proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) outright flew in the face of US interests at APEC. Leaders pledged to kick off a two-year study on the formation of the FTAAP, despite its being a rival trade bloc to the US-championed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP negotiations between 12 countries are already advanced, though serious internal disagreements are evident and were revealed in detail by Wikileaks.

Crucially, the TPP as it stands excludes China, ostensibly due to extensive state ownership in its economy and serious problems with the protection of intellectual property. US acquiescence to a study on the feasibility on the FTAAP may have been a harmless, face-saving gesture in front of the Chinese home crowd, but it nonetheless represents a nod to China’s vision of the region’s future.

On moral issues, too, the US president made concessions in Beijing. Since he came to power, Mr Xi has spearheaded an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and activists across China. The past 12 months were called a ‘Nightmarish Year’ for civil society proponents by Amnesty International, with hundreds arrested. In one case the stirred particular outrage this year, Ilham Tohti, a moderate Uyghur economics professor in Beijing, was handed a life sentence for inspiring ‘separatism’ on his website. NGOs appealed to the US president to take up the issue in Beijing, to no avail. The dramatic uptick in politically motivated arrests under Mr Xi has thus been matched with a corresponding decrease in criticism from the White House.

On the recent protests in Hong Kong, President Obama’s position was also weaker than it could have been. While he did express that the US would support democratic movements anywhere, he was, as US News and World Report noted, “…wary to place too much pressure on Xi Jinping for fear of provoking further accusations of foreign involvement.” This indicates the degree to which the Chinese government has succeeded in framing diplomatic discussion of Hong Kong. By asserting foreign interference, Beijing managed to force the US into expending resources on denying involvement, leaving little room for valid discussion on the issue of universal suffrage for Hong Kongers.

A useful definition of a superpower is that it sets the parameters of discussion between itself and other countries. While China certainly benefited from APEC’s being held on home turf this week, Mr Obama, as the head of state of the world’s most powerful nation, should not have been constrained to play by Beijing’s rules. Instead, in tacitly endorsing the Chinese government’s vision of the region’s future and forgoing an opportunity to boldly reassert American moral leadership he relegated his country to the status of equal or lesser power in Beijing. The question now is whether the new power dynamic is here to stay.

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