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Stabilizing Relations through High-level Exchanges

  • AUTHORShen Dingli, China-US Focus
  • Apr 15, 2016

Every five years, the US National Intelligence Council publishes its strategic forecasting report, predicting the future for the next 20 years. In December 2012, with China’s rapid development taking center stage, its report was titled “Global Trends 2030s: Alternative Worlds”. It predicted that by the 2030s, China likely would be on a par with America to be a co-superpower.

Given the US inclination toward Pax Americana, America is unlikely to share leadership with anyone else, let alone to yield. Presently America is disturbed by China’s unprecedented moves in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and Beijing’s numerous initiatives such as “One Belt and One Road”, as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The US is also wary of China’s behavior in the cyber- and outer-space.

Such apprehension warrants communication and explanation. Over the past few years, Beijing and Washington have set up their “Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED)” and “Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE)”. These efforts have helped to dispel some of the mutual suspicions and have advanced collaborations from climate change to cybersecurity.

At the top of such high-level contact is the summit of the heads of these two states. Obviously summits bear both symbolism and substance. Chinese and American presidents have to address those key challenges they face, from maritime to cyberspace disputes. The summit and S&ED offers them opportunities to clarify each’s position and narrow their difference.

Since President Xi assumed power in 2012/2013, he and President Obama have had plenty of occasions to meet, including G20, APEC and NSS sessions and reciprocal visits. Most signficantly, they met in 2013 when Xi paid his informal visit to the States, and in 2014 when Obama came to Beijing for APEC. In 2015 President Xi paid a state visit to the US, and in 2016 he had meeting with President Obama in DC on the sideline of the 4th Nuclear Security Summit.

These summits won’t be able to resolve all differences, but they do help to contain disputes at a minimum. For instance, on the issue of South China Sea, the two leaders were able to exchange their views frankly in 2015 over China’s reclamation and prevention of militarization in the area. In 2016 the two presidents addressed the issue of militarization again to seek clarification and assurance. Though nothing could have been expected from their talks for cooperative tension reduction, at least they would, through summit exchange, aspire to avoid escalating tension.

Sometime the summits have been able to address recurring thorny issues such as cybersecurity. In 2013, at the Sino-US summit at the Sunnylands estate, the leaders decided to set up bilateral Working Group on Cybersecurity. However, the announcement by the US Department of Justice in 2014 to indict five Chinese officers killed the dialogue of the working group. Then the summit in 2015 established High-Level Joint Dialogue on Cybercrime. So far this elevated dialogue has been both innovative and effective in responding to each side’s concerns.

For critical issues such as climate change and cybersecurity, it is unlikely that the two countries could advance their partnership without political commitment at the highest level. Therefore, regular and institutionalized high-level exchanges have become crucial for China and the US to overcome their mutual distrust.

The most recent summit in DC once again served to stabilize China-US relations in multiple areas. On non-traditional security issues, Beijing and Washington showcased their partnership on nuclear security as well as climate change. On maritime issues the leaders decided to collaborate again on the US-led biannual Ring Pacific naval drill. However, it looks that the two sides were not able to make big headway to narrow their difference on South China Sea and the US THAAD deployment in Republic of Korea. Despite this, they shall have refined their common stance on responding to the nuclear and missile development of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

As China is increasingly indispensable to contribute to global governance, its voice has to be better heard. Meantime, as China is more likely to affect regional affairs, response from its part of the world is becoming more complex. Such complicated circumstances ought to be properly managed. In this context, high-level exchanges including summit meetings help boost trust and soothe concerns.

This article was originally published in the China-US Focus. To view the original article, please click here.