The meeting between the leaders of China and the United States has rapidly become the gold standard for set-piece diplomatic extravaganzas. Xi Jinping and Barack Obama are, after all, the two most powerful men in the world. So when they have formal talks it matters a lot, and not just to the people of their respective countries.
For lesser lights like Australia, whose economic and strategic future is so bound up with these two countries, the auguries are a bit mixed. On the one hand, both China and the US are very conscious that they are highly interdependent and they have powerful reasons for making the relationship work and maintaining economic stability. On the other hand, the US and China are locked in an increasingly tense strategic rivalry that threatens to spin out of control if not carefully managed.
The potential for misunderstanding is greater than we might hope and a product of both countries’ unique histories. One key problem for the rest of the world is that both China and the US think they are “exceptional”. Many countries labour under this illusion, no doubt, but it matters when the two most powerful countries in the world think it at the same time.
Many Americans firmly believe that their country occupies a special, God-given place in the international scheme of things. While the rest of the world may be forgiven a little scepticism about quite how well this self-appointed role as a beacon of liberty and progress has been working out of late, it remains a compelling part of a domestic political narrative that, for better or worse, makes America what it is.
China is not so different. China is a country like no other and has a history to match. For most of recorded human history it was the world’s most advanced civilisation and largest centre of economic activity. Many Chinese think that we are seeing the overdue, entirely appropriate reinstatement of geopolitical business as usual.
As a consequence, both sides bring quite a bit of political, cultural and historical baggage to the bilateral talks. As the embodiment and a key architect of the re-emergence of China as a great power, it is vital as far as Xi’s domestic constituency is concerned that he is accorded the respect such a position merits.
Likewise, Obama cannot be seen to be kowtowing to China for fear of igniting a firestorm of domestic criticism. That so many in America have become quite so agitated about China’s rise is a revealing indicator of a truth that dare not speak its name: the US really has been in relative decline. In the absence of a not-unthinkable crisis in China, it is likely to remain so.
There are many ways of thinking about power and influence in international relations, but one of the most enduring is that it is at least partly zero-sum. As China’s material and even ideational influence increases it inevitably reduces America’s. How much this matters and what the payoffs may be remains a matter of dispute. The question for the rest of us is how successfully this transition can be managed and what the new international order will look like as a result.
The good news is that there is basis for mutually beneficial co-operation between the US and China. Economic interdependence is a powerful constraint on strategic adventurism. Both countries really do have too much to lose and it is difficult to imagine that this is not at the forefront of rational minds in China and the US.
Unfortunately, China-bashing is one of the staples of recent American presidential campaigns. There are many who would put their own short-term political interests ahead of any conception of the national interest – as there are in Australia, too.
Unfortunately, China is not immune from this sort of parochialism either. On the contrary, there is a rising tide of nationalist sentiment in China – given overt endorsement by Xi himself on occasion – that is placing constraints on foreign policy options. Nor is the continuing obsession with “American hegemonism” confined to the blogosphere.
China’s recent attempts to create its own institutional order with initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank starkly illustrate how disenchanted many of China’s leaders are about the prevailing international order. Whether the US any longer exercises quite the dominant influence it once did is moot, but that so many in China believe it does will influence how Xi approaches the talks.
One of the most telling indicators of the changing relative status of the world’s greatest powers is that so many are trying to decipher China’s “grand strategy”, while the US is berated for failing to develop a coherent message to send to friend and foe alike.
Even if such fears and concerns are overblown, they illustrate how much the world has changed in a remarkably short time. It is to be hoped that policymakers in Australia and elsewhere can adjust their thinking as quickly.