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June 10, 2013

Despite Sunny Summit, Challenges Remain for US, China

by William Ide

American and Chinese officials agreed at an informal summit last Friday and Saturday to work together to combat climate change and end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The two discussed the touchy issue of cyber-security, as well as wide range of other topics. But it is still unclear just how far the talks will go to bridging major differences and easing mistrust between the two global powers.

Coverage in China of the informal summit has largely been optimistic and it continues to be at the top of hourly newscasts, more than a day after the talks wrapped up in sunny California.

New chapter

On Monday, the state-run China Daily ran a bold headline that read: “Ready to Open a New Chapter” on its front page.  The piece highlighted a quote from State Councilor Yang Jiechi at the close of the meeting, who called the more than eight hours of talks unprecedented in terms of length, quality and depth.

U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon who, along with Yang, briefed the media at the end of the meetings, called the talks constructive, wide-ranging and positive.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, said both sides want to give the meetings a positive underpinning. He said they want to tell the world that they are going to work together to at least minimize frictions, if not manage them.

“But again, it remains to be seen whether this summit is going to be significant for the future of U.S.-China relations, or whether it will be regarded in the future as an unsuccessful attempt to mend a relationship where actually areas of conflict get bigger and bigger and bigger than areas of cooperation,” Cabestan said.

Challenges

Right now, for all of the areas in which the United States and China are growing in cooperation, there are many challenges as well.  The two have been working - albeit slowly - for years to build up military-to-military ties.

During the talks, China agreed to participate in a joint exercise with the U.S. Navy for the first time next summer. Boosting communication between the two countries’ militaries is something analysts say could go a long way to help avoiding conflicts at a time when the threat of miscalculation is growing.

China’s increased activity to defend what it says are its territorial claims in the South China Sea  is raising concerns in the region. For its part, Beijing is highly suspicious of U.S. efforts to refocus its attention on the Asian region, not only economically, but militarily as well.

The U.S. Navy expects to shift 60 percent of its assets to the Pacific by 2020, in what some strategists in China believe is part of an effort to encircle China and counter its rise.

“You look at the U.S. actions on the ground and many of them are symbolic," noted Xie Tao, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "For example the stationing of 1,200 U.S. soldiers in Darwin, Australia, and joint military exercise with the Philippines. These are more symbolic than substantive. But for the Chinese perceptions, they say, why are you coming back?”

Cyber security

The United States says the one issue that is key to the future of the bilateral relationship is cyber security.  For months now, the two have been going back and forth with both accusing the other of being the source of attacks that have had costly economic and national security repercussions.

The two leaders had not been scheduled to meet until later this year, and political analysts say concerns about those attacks and the U.S. shift of its attention back to the region are part of the reason why they met sooner.

At next month’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a broad-ranging annual round of talks between the two countries, the United States and China will hold a special panel on cyber security.

But Arthur Ding, a research fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, says it is hard to see them making any progress on the issue. He said the United States and China have already been holding non-official talks for five or six years.

“They all talk about the principles issues, but no achievement has been made, because the cyber is quite a virtual issue," Ding explained, "there is no physical activity that you can detect, although principle speaking they can agree on something, but concrete cooperation I would say is quite difficult.”

Hong Kong Baptist University’s Cabestan said one should not expect too much from Chinese authorities on cyber attacks. He said the message the U.S. administration appears to be trying to convey is that companies need to be more careful and better protected.

“First the reach of the state in China is not as strong and as powerful as people may presume and secondly China's scientific and technological development is much behind the U.S., so China needs to steal much more from the U.S than the other way around, so as any growing power in need for technology, if you can't buy the technology you are trying to steal it,” Cabestan said.

Public opinion

Still, despite these challenges, according to a new U.S. Gallup poll, released last week, 55 percent of American’s surveyed say they view China as either an ally (11 percent) or a nation friendly to the United States (44 percent). The survey says that 40 percent view China as either unfriendly (26 percent) or an enemy (14 percent). 

Analysts say part of the challenge in dealing with such a wide range of issues is that both nations have their own national interests and striking a balance is often hard.

An opinion piece in the state-owned Global Times newspaper Monday argues that it is unfair to think that China does not want to resolve concrete issues. But, it adds, U.S. demands are often impossible to comply with.