In 2012, writing in Foreign Affairs, Henry Kissinger, the elder statesman of American foreign policy, argued that the future of Sino-American relations needed to be re-imagined. A year earlier, US President Barack Obama and China’s then-President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement proclaiming a shared commitment to a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship.”
But, Kissinger observed, as cooperation increased, so had controversy. “Significant groups in both countries claim that a contest for supremacy between China and the United States is inevitable and perhaps already under way,” he wrote. “In this perspective, appeals for US-Chinese cooperation appear outmoded and even naïve.”
Two years later, Kissinger’s thesis proves even more poignant. Observers hoped that the inauguration of new Chinese leader Xi Jinping last year would usher in a new era of ties between the two superpowers. But Xi has surprised many with further crackdowns on media, the internet, and human rights activists, all of which aggravated Sino-US relations.
“It turns out [Xi] is an authoritarian, nationalist, modernizer who wants to tinker with the Chinese economy and social structure, much like Deng Xiaoping,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California, during a panel discussion conducted by the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank. “Xi is not China’s Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Indeed, President Obama enters the fifth year of his presidency at an awkward moment for US-China relations. Gone are two mainstays of diplomatic negotiations with Beijing: Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary. Gone, too, is Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, a Chinese-American who was popular among the Chinese public. Locke connected well with regular Chinese, in part because he projected a simple lifestyle with modest financial assets, providing a stark contrast to Chinese officials who are increasingly known to possess great wealth.
Both the American and Chinese publics have grown increasingly wary of the other side. A 2013 survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, found that American respondents with a favourable opinion of China dropped to 37% from 51% two years earlier. Just 40% of Chinese respondents have a favourable view of the United States, down from 58% in 2010.
In February, the Senate Foreign Relations committed approved Max Baucus’ appointment to become ambassador to China. Baucus, 72, a Montana Democrat who was first elected to the Senate in 1978, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which overseas trade issues. He has been a leading voice on trade policy and played a significant role in America’s effort to achieve China’s membership in the World Trade Organization in the 1990s, a credential that should help the new ambassador build ties in Beijing. He’s made a number of trips to China over the years, including one during which he met Xi.
Baucus’s appointment provides a moment to reflect on the state of Sino-American relations. Based on recent events, it appears the new ambassador will have his work cut out for him. China and the United States faced several major tensions in 2013 that have overshadowed efforts to build what both sides have called a “new model” of ties between the countries.
Over the last year, China has grown increasingly assertive with territorial disputes with neighbouring nations, many of which have military alliances with the US. In November, Beijing established the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) off its eastern coast. It demanded all foreign aircraft passing through the zone share information with Chinese authorities—or face consequences. Notably, the zone included the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by China. In response, the US, Japan, and Korea publicly rejected the ADIZ and sent military aircraft through the zone without repercussions from Beijing.
In late 2013, China stalled visa applications for some two dozen journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg News in the wake of articles exposing the massive fortunes accumulated by the families of powerful Chinese leaders, including Xi and former Premier Wen Jiaboa. US Vice President Joe Biden expressed concern about the visa delays directly to Chinese leaders when he visited Beijing in December, and the move prompted calls for the US to retaliate by denying visas to Chinese journalists in America.
There were other sources of tension as well: both sides complained that their governments and corporate institutions were victims of cyber attacks originated from the other side, and the Chinese cracked down on internet activists who called for greater human rights, as promised in the 1982 Chinese constitution. Divisions between the two powers were further aggravated after former US National Security contractor Edward Snowden sought shelter in Hong Kong after leaking details of American cyber spying programmes. In June, China permitted Snowden to travel to Russia instead of extraditing him, angering the US.
Despite the tensions of the last year, there remains reason for optimism. Both sides continue to stress the importance of strengthening relations. In January, Sun Guoxiang, the Chinese consul general in New York, heralded a new era of US-China relations in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Over the past three decades, both countries have learned that it is always better to engage in dialogue rather than confrontation, cooperation rather than containment, and deal with each other as partners rather than rivals.”
Baucus’s nomination suggests future relations will be based primarily on trade and economic ties. Obama suggested as much when he announced Baucus’ nomination. “For more than two decades Max Baucus has worked to deepen the relationship between the United States and China,” the president said in a statement. “The economic agreements he helped forge have created millions of American jobs and added billions of dollars to our economy.” Despite political difficulties, China continues to be the US’s second largest trading partner, third largest export market, and biggest source of imports.
During China’s third plenum in November, leaders promised a number of domestic policy changes including an acknowledgement that the market should play a bigger role in the allocation of resources in the economy. If implemented, the reforms would lessen the influence of state-owned companies while empowering Chinese consumers and opening the door for more foreign businesses to make inroads in China. The news was welcomed in the US.
As Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, recently noted, despite their differences, China and the US have little choice but to work together. “For better or worse, this complex brew of tension, hope, progress and retrenchment is what we can expect from the modern-day US-China relationship. The two huge powers have divergent interests but also deep interdependence,” Hachigian wrote. “Working together is hard and frustrating, but not working together is worse.”