President Xi Jinping showed the world a newly assertive China that’s less worried about satisfying others than in pursuing its own goals as he approved agreements with the U.S. on climate change and trade tariffs.
Deals announced during President Barack Obama’s state visit to China this week, also including visa processing and military coordination, demonstrated that China under Xi isn’t afraid to say “yes” to Western leaders when it is in its interests.
On climate, Xi took a step his nation had long resisted, agreeing to cap its carbon emissions by 2030 -- not because Obama asked him to, but because pollution is killing his people and driving away global business.
At the same time, Xi showed he won’t hesitate to say “no” when it suits him -- such as when he informed Obama that Hong Kong protests were China’s business alone.
After enduring what Chinese officials call the century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners, China now is powerful enough -- and confident enough -- to chart its own path with less need to bend to the demands of others.
“In the past, we always said China wanted good relations with the outside world to support its economic agenda,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who studies China’s leadership. “That logic has changed.”
Rising nationalism, growing prosperity, military muscle and a thirst to claim what China sees as its rightful place in world affairs has altered “the dynamic of the relationship,” Fewsmith said.
Prior to this week’s summits, Xi refused to attend a United Nations climate meeting in New York in September that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon planned as a capstone for the annual General Assembly gathering. Xi waited until Obama and other world leaders were on his turf, in Beijing, before announcing what China would do.
Xi, who has centralized power more than any Chinese leader in 25 years, is the embodiment of that change, and it was on display at a joint appearance today of the U.S. and Chinese leaders.
The U.S. president stood tall and angular. His Chinese host, thicker around the middle, had his feet spread and rocked slightly on his heels. Though both men looked entirely at home in the spotlight, there was no sign of personal warmth.
Their statements to reporters in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, home to China’s rubber-stamp parliament, were intended to cap Obama’s visit, a bookend to last year’s summit in the U.S.
That 2013 informal get-together at the Sunnylands estate in Palm Springs, California, was a shirtsleeves affair intended to foster a personal closeness between the leaders.
If they bonded, there was no evidence of it at the lecterns today. Obama teased a New York Times reporter for asking a lengthy, three-part question. Between Obama and Xi, however, there was no banter.
Even when Obama quoted a familiar aphorism from one of Xi’s predecessors -- Deng Xiaoping’s invocation to “seek truth from facts” -- Xi betrayed no sign of appreciation.
In earlier phases of China’s rise, the country’s leaders enjoyed playing to American audiences. On a 1979 visit to the U.S., Deng attended a rodeo and charmed his Texas hosts by donning an oversized Stetson. His successor, Jiang Zemin, enjoyed crooning “Old Man River.”
Xi’s approach isn’t personal. He seeks to impress with China’s growing strength. Obama was shown the evidence everywhere during his three days in Beijing.
The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was held at a new conference center built for the occasion at Yanqi Lake, north of the smoggy capital. A new Kempinski Hotel on the property looks like an oblong spaceship that crash-landed on its side. The conference facilities were frosted with sweeping roofs that echoed traditional Chinese architecture.
Last night, Obama’s motorcade was directed along a winding route that showed off both modern Beijing’s affluence and its ancient cultural treasures.
Since 2005, China’s economy has more than doubled in real terms while U.S output has grown almost 11 percent. As China -- with four times the U.S. population -- grows ever more powerful, the challenge as seen in U.S. public opinion is genuine. Fifty-seven percent of Americans consider China an adversary or serious problem for the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center poll on March 20-23.
Yet China’s growing muscle may be overstated in reality.
For one thing, its continued rise is no sure thing: The country is trying to overhaul its economic model, deal with a shrinking labor force, cope with ethnic tensions and ameliorate staggering environmental damage.
Meanwhile, the U.S., for all its shortcomings, boasts the strongest economy among advanced nations.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has never had a partner quite like China: The two nations did $562 billion in trade last year, yet their militaries regularly make contingency plans for combat.
Both sides insist they see great scope for the two wary nations to cooperate in fights against the Ebola virus, terrorism and poverty.
“If the United States is going to continue to lead the world in addressing global challenges, then we have to have the second-largest economy and the most-populous nation on Earth as our partner,” the president said during a joint appearance with Xi at the conclusion of his state visit.
While the two sides trumpeted agreements on an information trade deal, climate change and military cooperation, the details were more modest.
U.S. officials welcomed a Chinese commitment to begin reducing their total annual volume of carbon emissions. Still, under the deal, those emissions could continue increasing for the next 16 years -- through four more U.S. presidential elections.
And China’s government was already under pressure from its own people to take action against the appalling urban air pollution.
Reflecting the issue’s local sensitivity, the Chinese government during the summit halted a local service that made the U.S. embassy’s daily air quality readings available.
Those figures routinely show that the air in cities such as Beijing is dangerously unhealthy, according to World Health Organization standards.
Reducing pollution “is not something you have to pressure us to do,” said Wang Yiwei, director of the institute for international affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. “This is for our people.”
A proposed bilateral investment treaty, which would open more sectors to market competition, may offer the greatest impact. U.S. companies, especially in the financial-services industry, see it as opening businesses such as life insurance to foreign companies.
To Chinese reformers, the treaty offers a chance to promote further market opening, as happened in 2001 when they used the prospect of joining the World Trade Organization as a cudgel to defeat status quo forces.
“It’s inherently tied to the Chinese reform debate,” says John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council. “It can be transformative.”
At the same time, some foreign business groups have said a new anti-monopoly law in China is being used in a discriminatory way against foreign companies.
Foreign media organizations have also complained about China’s refusal to issue new residence visas for their correspondents. Xi, asked about it at the news conference, said that was a problem for the media to fix, just as the owner of a disabled car should be the one to make repairs.
“China protects its citizens’ freedom of expression and the rights of media organizations in accordance with the law, but the media also have to obey China’s law,” Xi said. “In China, we have a saying -- the party that caused the problem should be the party to resolve it, so perhaps we have to find the reason behind the problem.”
For all the talk of shared interests, an undercurrent of distrust lingers. China sees Obama’s renewed policy interest in Asia as an effort to contain its rise. The U.S. is wary that Xi’s vision of a new model of great power relations is an attempt to curtail U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.
“The framework proposed by the Chinese side has generated a lot of suspicion from American analysts and officials,” said Wang Dong, director of the school of international studies at Peking University, speaking before the summit.
Xi’s businesslike tone hinted at the limits to the relationship as did references to the “candid” nature of the talks from both presidents -- diplomatic code for bracing honesty.
On Wednesday, Xi repeated his view that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for the U.S. and China. His view of the Pacific waters that wash up on Chinese shores, however, is less charitable.
“What they’re trying to do is develop a zone of greater security, but of course you can’t do that in East Asia without pushing up against the security architecture the U.S. has developed since World War II,” says Fewsmith. “The U.S. has no inclination to change anything, and that’s where you find the friction.”