At the beginning of his September official state visit to the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping told a group of U.S. political figures that “China and the United States should join hands to solve problems they both face to make the world turn better and grow faster” (China.org.cn, September 23). Xi’s optimistic outlook implies that there is substantial collaboration between the U.S. and China, and even a common perspective on key strategic issues. If that were true, one would expect the publication of a single joint statement by the two countries. Such a statement would simultaneously reassure Chinese and U.S. domestic audiences of sustained Sino-U.S. cooperation while demonstrating a united front to the rest of the world in addressing global challenges. During Xi’s September state visit, however, the two countries failed to issue a joint statement, save for a joint document focused on climate change. The Chinese domestic audience is likely unaware of the absence of a joint statement, since the format and language of China’s “summit outcomes” statement suggest that the U.S. and China negotiated and agreed upon every item. This insinuation fits with Chinese media coverage of the summit overall, which almost exclusively highlights common ground and cooperation.
Two Roads Diverged
Toward the end of President Barack Obama’s first term in office, when optimism about U.S.-China relations was still running high, Obama visited Beijing and the two nations issued a joint statement in which they lauded the “in-depth, productive and candid discussions” between their leaders and agreed “to advance U.S.-China relations in the new era” (Whitehouse.gov, November 17, 2009). Despite growing friction in the relationship, the joint statement issued when Hu Jintao made a return visit to the U.S. in 2011 possessed a similarly glowing tone, celebrating the two countries’ “commitment to building a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship for the 21st century” (Whitehouse.gov, January 19, 2011). China Daily remarked that, through this joint statement, “China and the U.S. have set an example of positive relations between countries, despite different political systems, historical and cultural backgrounds, and levels of economic development” (China Daily, January 21, 2011). The failure to issue a joint statement during Xi’s September visit marks the second time in as many years that the two countries have not been able to reach a consensus. This begs the question, what accounts for the lack of agreement in the two countries’ interpretation of the summit and the overall U.S.-China relationship?
After the September summit, the U.S. and China issued separate statements reflecting on its achievements, highlighting notable gains in priority areas and subjects of interest for their individual countries. These documents were drafted and exchanged ahead of the summit. On economic and cyber-related issues, the language was negotiated line-by-line in the run-up to the visit (with a separate “U.S.-China Economic Relations” factsheet published by the White House). Shared language on cyber-related issues, feared to be a point of discord between the two leaders in the summit, reflects four days of intense discussions between the Secretary of China’s powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Group Meng Jianzhu and senior American officials a little more than a week before Xi’s arrival in the United States (Whitehouse.gov, September 12).
On other strategic issues, however, there was no attempt to negotiate a joint statement. Instead, both sides agreed to have “unilateral but coordinated” statements, evidence that there was shared recognition that their differences on numerous strategic matters had become too great to develop common language. The Obama administration had publicly pledged that it would not paper over differences at this meeting, especially on security issues.
Given the high degree of cohesion in the two sides’ documents on cyber, climate change and economic issues, the areas of variance on strategic issues deserve a closer look. Analysis of these differences provides insights into U.S. and Chinese respective priorities, as well as current American and Chinese perceptions of the U.S.-China relationship.
The White House “Fact Sheet” includes a dry preface with just three sentences (Whitehouse.gov, September 25). Crucially, U.S.-China tensions are placed front and center. The third sentence states that the two presidents “agreed to work together to constructively manage our differences” before introducing the various areas of cooperation. Here, the tough stance signaled by the Obama administration in the weeks before the summit shines through, setting the tone for the entire factsheet as a tempered acknowledgement of achievements without obscuring the problems in the bilateral relationship.
In juxtaposition, the introduction to the outcomes statement issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs contains multiple references that extol both the summit and the U.S.-China relationship. Echoing past joint statements, it notes that the two leaders “had in-depth, candid and constructive talks,” reached “extensive consensus” and arrived at “a series of important outcomes” (FMPRC.gov.cn, September 26). These phrases underscore China’s broader goals for Xi’s visit: to illustrate Obama’s respect for China’s leader as an equal; to demonstrate that the U.S.-China relationship is stable and positive; and to further consolidate Xi’s concept of the “new model of China-U.S. major-country relations.” In order to show that these goals were achieved, the outcomes document alludes to success early and often.
By design, the Chinese and U.S. statements are fundamentally different. Unlike the list of achievements publicized by the State Department following the 7th U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in June, the U.S. summit factsheet is sparse. It highlights particularly successful, and mostly new, areas of bilateral cooperation, including peacekeeping, wildlife trafficking, protection of the oceans and development. Almost every line of the main body of the U.S. factsheet is replicated in the Chinese outcomes document, with minor wording differences that are insubstantial. However, the Chinese outcomes statement augments nearly every common section with additional description, context and examples of further cooperation. The list of progress areas in the relationship is much longer, and it imparts the impression that the U.S. and China are working together effectively, in both bilateral channels and multilateral venues. This in turn inflates the robustness of the U.S.-China relationship for the Chinese domestic audience, suggesting that the U.S. and China share common perspectives and are collaborating more widely than is actually the case.
The language used in China’s outcomes document also appeals to a larger audience in the areas where U.S.-China language diverges, particularly with regard to China’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region. In a separate section on Asia-Pacific Affairs, China stresses the “in-depth discussions on Asia-Pacific affairs” held by the two sides regarding their “broad common interests” and “common challenges.” China observes:
“The two sides agreed to deepen dialogue on Asia-Pacific affairs at various levels, endeavor to build a relationship of positive interaction and inclusive cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, and work with other countries in the region to promote peace, prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacific.”
The Asia-Pacific Affairs section is notably short, with only one paragraph on Afghanistan, which implicitly reveals the challenges of U.S.-China cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. Although Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi forecast that Xi and Obama would “step up cooperation in regional security issues, including the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue” prior to Xi’s visit, North Korea goes unmentioned in either the U.S. or Chinese document (Lanting Forum, Xinhua, September 16; The Beijing News, September 20). Nevertheless, Chinese media reports of the summit laud progress on security issues, with Xinhua declaring that, “all stakeholders in the China-U.S. relationship can be assured that the two sides have genuinely started taking concrete steps to tackle some of the hot-button issues that have strained their ties, such as cyber security and the South China Sea dispute” (Xinhua, September 26).
Coding for a Domestic Audience
China’s outcomes document highlights Xi Jinping’s slogan for the U.S.-China relationship, the New Model of Major Country Relations, which Xi cited as the priority of Chinese foreign policy at a welcome banquet upon arriving in Seattle on September 22 (Xinhua, September 23). China’s claim that the two leaders agreed again at this year’s summit to build a new model of major country relationship is notably absent from the U.S. factsheet. The U.S. position on the concept has evolved since its introduction by then-Vice President Xi during a state visit in 2012. The concept initially gained limited support from Obama administration officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who stressed the importance of avoiding the “Thucydides Trap” (a theory that poses the inevitability of conflict between emerging and established powers) as China emerges as a great power (Xinhua, January 15, 2011). But in recent years, China’s repeated emphasis on “mutual respect for core interests” and its efforts to portray the U.S. has having accepted China’s new model has soured the Obama administration on the concept.
China’s document appeals to its domestic audience by indicating progress on some highly-charged issues, including the Xi administration’s anti-corruption campaign. Leading up to the visit, Chinese officials and reporters urged Obama to remember the importance of aiding China’s effort to repatriate fugitives; one reporter observed that by doing so, “Obama would render valuable help essential for Xi to complete the most important task on his agenda”
(China Daily, September 8). The U.S. factsheet mentions corruption only once, while the Chinese document devotes two full paragraphs to corruption (garnering eight mentions). This includes partnerships between law enforcement agencies, support for the China-U.S. Joint Liaison Group (JLG), cooperation on the subject during China’s G20 presidency, and enhancing practical cooperation.
Interestingly, China couches corruption and other domestic issues, such as law enforcement and counter-terrorism, in an international context. Its outcomes drives home China’s collaborative efforts within regional and international institutions, citing the “multilateral frameworks of the UNCAC, G20 and APEC.” The document also underscores Chinese resolve to cooperate on “further implementation of APEC’s Beijing Declaration on Fighting Corruption.” Here, Beijing seeks to accentuate its willingness to work with the U.S. to address regional and global problems.
China’s fact sheet also highlights U.S. support for China’s rise: “The United States welcomes a strong, prosperous and stable China that plays a greater role in international and regional affairs.” However, the U.S. document makes no mention of such a consensus. At the joint press conference, Obama did welcome “the rise of a China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in global affairs.” He did not, however, use the term “strong.” For their part, Chinese leaders, avoided using the terms “responsible” and “peaceful.” The difference in terminology reflects persisting mistrust. U.S. support for a strong China is conditional on Chinese power being used to strengthen the prevailing international system and advance objectives that are consistent with American interests. China is loath to embrace an American definition of what is responsible behavior. The Chinese remain committed to a “peaceful rise” in principle, but will not foreswear use of non-peaceful means if Chinese interests are threatened.
The in-depth, comprehensive detailing of a wide array of efforts and agreements listed by China but not by the U.S. is intended to create two impressions. First, the summit should be seen as an extremely productive and successful. Second, Beijing’s relations with Washington are primarily positive and cooperative. Some experts in China (and the U.S.) have argued that the bilateral relationship is now dominated by strategic competition and that the two nations may even come to blows. Such a judgment would require concluding that China’s period of strategic opportunity is over. Xi seeks to quash these doomsayers and persuade his domestic audience that the U.S. and China can avoid the “Thucydides trap” of great power conflict.
Significance of the Diverging Approaches
The U.S.-China relationship has changed fundamentally since the early years of the Obama administration. Common wording can be developed on specific bilateral, regional and global issues where U.S. and Chinese interests converge. An overall joint statement that includes broader strategic issues proved too difficult to negotiate at this juncture.
As evidenced by the U.S. fact sheet, Washington is increasingly focused on addressing concrete problems in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. It has long since given up on forging a broad global partnership with China, an aspiration that was held when Obama first took office.
By stressing consistency and collaboration with the U.S., as well as its legitimate and peaceful role in the global arena, China has utilized its outcomes document as a display of both power and prudence. This combination is geared toward a Chinese public desirous of respect, U.S. business leaders and investors looking for a conducive environment for operations, and the greater international community that seeks reassurances that the U.S. and China will settle their differences peacefully.
Bonnie Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Hannah Hindel is a research intern in the China Power Project at CSIS and a second-year master’s student in the Asian Studies program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. She previously studied at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in Nanjing, China.