All the right things were said by President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in their joint Rose Garden press conference on Friday.
After a private dinner on Thursday evening and morning meetings, the leaders of the world’s two most powerful nations delivered a laundry list of the ways in which they would “cooperate more closely” and “produce results” on issues far and wide. Left unsaid, but leaving the biggest impression, was the unavoidable fact that U.S.-China relations are locked into their current pattern of competition and distrust.
Largely symbolic were the agreements trumpeted by Messrs. Obama and Xi, on climate, Ebola, piracy, development, and people-to-people exchanges. These are all fine goals, little of which matter in the larger picture of ties between the two countries. After all, the United States works with dozens of global partners on all these issues, many of them countries with far more technical expertise and track record of providing public goods than China.
More importantly, these are areas where the two sides more or less already agree. The mark of a true working relationship is to make progress in the areas of disagreement. And here, sadly, there was no good news at all.
The U.S. and China are about to wage war on each other. It is that American leaders consistently try to convince themselves and the world that China is “peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative,” in the formulation used by the president and his top advisers.
While both presidents touted their new cyber pact, to refrain from attacking each other’s private corporations and to cooperate on cyber crime, the proof is in the eating, to put it charitably. Given the almost unimaginable scale of Chinese cyber aggression against U.S. interests (not to mention other countries), it takes a profound leap of faith to believe that Xi found religion in a few hours of talks with a lame-duck U.S. president bedeviled by Iran, ISIS, and Russia.
Just as blatantly, Xi stood next to the American president and boldly proclaimed that the islands of the South China Sea have belonged to China since ancient times. Such justification for China’s continued and growing coercion in those disputed waters reveals a distinct lack of concern with U.S. protestations about maintaining freedom of navigation and stability in the region. Not mentioned, one might note, was China’s militarization of its man-made islands in the South China Sea, which are serving to change the balance of power in Southeast Asia.
But then again, many things were not mentioned, such as the prolonged detainment of an American citizen, which was announced just days ago, on suspicions of spying, or yet another dangerous Chinese fighter jet interception of an American reconnaissance plane in international skies.
Nor was there any talk about China’s growing intercontinental ballistic missile force, which Xi proudly paraded in Beijing just this month, or the three combat ships he sent to the waters off Alaska while Obama was visiting there.
Given how much cooperation the two presidents cited, one might reasonably ask why China continues to build the world’s most advanced weapons, many of which are designed to attack U.S. forces in Asia.
The point is not that the U.S. and China are about to wage war on each other. It is that American leaders consistently try to convince themselves and the world that China is “peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative,” in the formulation used by the president and his top advisers.
Instead, an economically challenged China continues to push the limits of acceptable behavior both regionally and internationally, signaling its intention not to work with the United States, but to force Washington to modify its behavior in the interests of chimerical cooperation.
This state visit has shown that U.S.-China relations are locked into their current pattern. That’s bad news.
Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Asia Bubble" (Yale University Press).