The talking heads and scholars had their predictions, but few China watchers really foresaw what would unfold during when Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted U.S. President Barack Obama at November’s APEC summit in Beijing.
In a year of mounting “strategic mistrust,” the two powers showed that with closed-door discussions they could overcome heated rhetoric and find common ground on issues of global importance, said Robert A. Kapp, a former U.S.-China Business Council president and an adviser to the Carter Center’s China Program.
Scholars always recommended they cooperate on climate change and reach a deal to remove a major hurdle to a World Trade Organization IT trade agreement stalled since 1997; they were simply taken aback that they both got done in ways that sidestepped sensitive geopolitical concerns. The climate deal, for example, seems to have been pushed forward by a few diplomats working for months behind closed doors, Mr. Kapp said.
“When the U.S. and China collaborate, it encourages other economies in the world to get their acts together,” Mr. Kapp said during a Dec. 15 luncheon discussion at the Carter Center.
Bilaterally, the two countries also enacted measures to mutually extend validity of business and tourism visas for up to 10 years and made it easier for students to keep their visas for five years.
These developments constituted a positive ending to a “tough year” in U.S.-China relations marked by concerns over China’s slowing economic growth and its increasingly strident position in regional territorial disputes, Mr. Kapp said. The U.S. views China’s increasing military budget with concern, while China equates the U.S. pivot to Asia with a policy to “encircle” it.
“There has been in both countries a kind of escalating and somewhat self-perpetuating feeling that each side does not wish the other particularly well,” he said, noting that officials often talk past each other and have developed “sense that each side envisions its future as being served or advanced at the expense of the other side.”
Internal politics haven’t helped. An election year in the U.S. brought the typical anxious “rumblings” over China’s rise, and politicians on both sides have used the other as a “stage prop” for playing on domestic fears, Mr. Kapp said.
Many worry that Mr. Xi’s “Chinese dream for rejuvenation of the nation” will lead to rising nationalism and belligerence in Asia. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party has been squeezed by an internal anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared officials at the highest levels.
Mr. Kapp said Mr. Xi seems to be aiming to present himself as an heir to an imperial tradition of concentrating moral authority within the government itself, which could presage a dangerous turn for a society that some worry has “lost its ethical moorings,” he said.
How China handles its new influx of wealth, and its geopolitical rise, will come down to the forces driving people’s behavior as Chinese society is strained by growing inequality that has come as as result of rapid wealth creation.
“Somebody’s always ‘nouveau riche,'” Dr. Kapp said. “The question … is what happens to the grandchildren of these people. Two generations from now, what are these people with all of this wealth going to do with their money?”
Read Mr. Kapp’s jointly written New York Times article on Resetting U.S.-China Relations in advance of Mr. Obama’s trip to Beijing.