Ballet of the Giants
By Michael MaherFebruary 14, 2012
China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping, heir apparent to the Communist Party leadership, is in Washington, D.C. for talks which could shape the uneasy relationship between these two rivals for years to come. Australia and the Asia-Pacific region will be watching closely.
The United States and China, the world's pre-eminent superpowers, are an ungainly couple. One is a boisterous democracy, the other an authoritarian state. One possesses the world's most sophisticated armed forces, underpinned by a frail economy now struggling to sustain them. The other is an economic phenomenon aspiring to be America's military equal.
There is a long list of issues over which to clash - Iran, Syria, human rights and trade deficits to name just a few. Distrust between the two nations is running deeper than it has in years. But dance they must. At stake are buoyant commercial ties neither can afford to submerge and the delicate security architecture of Asia and the Pacific.
Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington D.C., which began Feb. 13, won't resolve any of the issues vexing their relationship but it will be an important marker of the future steps China and the US may choose to take in their diplomatic pas de deux.
Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, should he win re-election in November, respectively will lead China until 2022 and the US until 2017. Both represent generational change. Xi has a daughter attending Obama's alma mater, Harvard University. But that's where the similarities between the two abruptly end.
The Chinese Vice President is a "princeling", the son of a senior communist party official, who has steadily risen through China's provincial and national leadership ranks.
"Chinese politics is exactly the opposite of US politics," says former Obama foreign policy advisor and Brookings Institute senior fellow Dr Kenneth Lieberthal. "For the year or two before a Chinese aspirant to top leadership assumes the top position, every single incentive he has is to duck his head low and say nothing that makes news. In the US system someone with comparable aspirations would spend a few years before an election declaring how he would change absolutely everything the idiot currently in office is doing."
Xi doesn't ascend to the Chinese presidency until next year, so he will be additionally cautious in Washington, D.C. during this visit. According to Lieberthal the significance of the Obama-Xi meeting lies in the opportunity the two will have to "get a read on each other" at a time of deep distrust between the two nations. "Despite what is a very wide-ranging and in many ways very effective working relationship," says Lieberthal, "that distrust has actually grown in the last five years or so. There's an underlying, serious distrust about long-term intentions. It could be a self-fulfilling prophecy that it slips into a basically antagonistic relationship."
Much of that distrust revolves around the US and China's intentions in Australia's part of the world, the Asia-Pacific. The most pressing potential flashpoint remains North Korea. At a media briefing in Washington prior to Xi's visit, the former senior director for Asian affairs in President George W. Bush's National Security Council, Dr Michael Green, warned that North Korea is likely to step up its nuclear program this year. "I think the worry is, on our side, that North Korea will test a nuclear weapon in 2012. And if it's a uranium-based weapon, that's very bad, because it shows their enrichment has advanced to the point where they can crank out basically one a year."
China is bound to its North Korean ally, particularly now as the untested and unsteady 30-year-old Kim Jong Un lays claim to his dynastic destiny at the helm of the Hermit Kingdom. Green isn't expecting much progress, if any, to be made on North Korea in this week's talks, saying China and the US are "increasingly talking past each other on North Korea now."
During his visit to Indonesia and Australia last year, President Obama pointedly re-asserted the US's commitment to remaining engaged in Asia and the Pacific in a manner which alarmed the Chinese leadership. According to Dr Elizabeth Economy from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, "The Chinese have been unhappy about the US's so-called 'pivot' towards Asia. They've been unhappy about the stationing of troops in Australia and the strengthening of its Asian alliances."
Dr Economy attributes recent US positioning to "a series of missteps by the Chinese in Asia," including on North Korea and the contested South China Sea. Economy told The Global Mail: "They [the Chinese] seem to have been taken aback by the re-emergence of the US, indicating they didn't understand the impact their actions and rhetoric would trigger."
Among the more captive members of the audience watching this week's ballet of the giants in Washington, D.C., will be Australia. The recent announcement that up to 2,500 US Marines will spend six months of the year based in Darwin by 2017 has put Australia in an unenviable position. "Australia obviously has a major tension in that its economic dynamism has become increasingly closely tied to China and at the same time it's militarily very close to the United States," observes Kenneth Lieberthal. "It's a balancing act and inevitably a lot of what Australia does the Chinese are going to complain about. At the same time, the Chinese need Australian minerals."
Given China's economic clout many governments in the Asia-Pacific region find themselves engaged in a similar balancing act. Nevertheless, many as well are encouraged by the US reasserting itself in the region as a counterweight to China's growing military might. "Drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan means we can focus more on Asia," says Elizabeth Economy. "It's a forward-looking approach that we can now afford."
Although the United States still has the world's largest economy, a position China is expected to claim in a decade or so, Washington is acutely aware that its recovery from the Great Recession will be intimately tied to stronger relations with the world's fastest growing economies in Asia. The global economic crisis, together with America's preoccupation with two wars, has helped China to assert itself more rapidly on the world stage. It's a situation the United States views with considerable ambivalence. Used to being the prima ballerina, it's now not only having to share the spotlight but also to pretend that it's happy to do so.
Making light of the situation on the eve of Xi Jinping's arrival, former Bush administration staffer Michael Green joked: "Since our friends in Beijing found 'pivot' too aggressive and threatening, I've heard the administration is going to change it to 'pirouette.' We're going to pirouette to Asia."
And so the dance continues.