Wed, Sep 23, 2015 - Page 8 News List

Aftermath key to Sino-US summit

By Minxin Pei 斐敏欣

While Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) opens his trip to the US in Seattle, home to many of the world’s leading technology firms, most observers are looking to his meeting with US President Barack Obama.

Can the summit reverse a downward spiral in Sino-US relations that began with Xi’s rise to power in 2013?

Few dispute that the world’s most important bilateral relationship is in deep trouble.

From a US perspective, China’s reckless behavior in the South China Sea, suspected cyberattacks against US targets, protectionist economic policies and escalating political repression at home have demolished the belief that a globally integrated China would be a responsible and cooperative partner.

Indeed, recent Chinese actions directly challenge vital US interests and core values.

On the other side, Chinese leaders view the US’ strategic “pivot to Asia” as a thinly veiled step to tighten its geopolitical containment of China.

Moreover, they have become obsessed with US dominance in international finance and technology, and, most importantly, the US’ ideological commitment to liberal democracy, which they regard as an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The toxic mix of mutual mistrust and tit-for-tat behavior has brought Sino-US ties to their lowest point since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

There is now widespread concern that the US and China might be headed for a new Cold War.

For Xi, the stakes associated with his US trip could not be higher. To maintain his domestic image as a strong leader, he must stick to his nationalist rhetoric and policies.

However, he also needs to stabilize the all-important relationship with Washington.

Judging by recent moves by China and the US, people can expect modest success in a few contentious areas. While such improvements, on their own, are unlikely to change the relationship’s adversarial dynamic, they might halt a deterioration in bilateral ties, at least for now.

On the eve of Xi’s departure, both the US and China took positive, albeit symbolic, steps to demonstrate their goodwill and improve the diplomatic atmosphere.

The US extradited a low-level Chinese official to face corruption charges. The Obama administration also decided not to announce sanctions against Chinese entities and individuals allegedly involved in cyberattacks on US companies and US government agencies.

China released a rights activist and dispatched a high-level delegation to the US to discuss cybersecurity.

In fact, the two sides are reportedly negotiating a landmark deal that would prohibit cyberattacks against each other’s vital infrastructure. An agreement on the issue could be the most important outcome of the summit, although other types of cyberattacks are unlikely to be covered by it.

For China, the biggest prize is a bilateral investment treaty.

In practical terms, such a treaty would make it easier for Chinese entities to invest and operate in the US, while increasing US firms’ access to Chinese markets.

Such a deal would be a near-term boon for Xi, because it would represent a vote of confidence by the US in China’s struggling economy.

However, the prospects for a treaty are uncertain, at best.

The US Congress is deeply skeptical, and the US business community needs convincing as well. Both have been bitterly disappointed by China’s mercantilist trading policies after its accession to the WTO.

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