PRESIDENT XI JINPING’S visit to the United States delivered as little, in the eyes of the outside world, as had been expected. On that score, it did not disappoint.
The two headline outcomes, a cybersecurity dialogue and the announcement of a national cap-and-trade carbon market, were a fudge and a repackaging respectively. The two sides agreed not to support commercial cyber-espionage, although what one side sees as cybertheft the other regards as matters of national security. So we’ll see how far that goes. Meanwhile, China has long been running pilot cap-and-trade carbon projects in preparation for launching a national market.
Plenty of other areas of contention remain, from the impact of China’s recent stock market turmoil and currency devaluation on the U.S. Federal Reserve’s interest rate policy to questions of maritime sovereignty in the South and East China Seas.
Even the agreement to start a high-level dialogue on cybercrime, albeit narrowly defined, risks triggering another front in the simmering trade wars between the two, and especially with the U.S. going into a presidential election campaign that has already shown signs of inflammatory anti-China rhetoric before it has even got going.
The proposed cybercrime dialogue provides, though, another example, of how Xi is trying to define issues on Beijing’s own or parallel terms, not on Washington’s. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative is another. The Beijing development model in Africa is a third.
Being seen at home to be writing new rules of the game not playing by the old ones and standing shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. as an equal was a significant purpose of Xi’s trip.
State media laid great emphasis for its domestic audience on Xi and Obama forging a new model for great power leadership, a theme echoed in the coverage of Xi’s address to the United Nations General Assembly where Xi was lauded for breathing “new life into the development of international relations, leaving a deep imprint in the history of China’s diplomacy.”
Win-win is the new watchword for China’s diplomacy. It is a portrayal of the country as an alternative to traditional great or colonial powers. China’s narrative is that it is a developing country that will be a partner to others not a master. This fits with a traditional commercial concept that negotiation is about building trust for long-term cooperation rather than resolving an immediate problem at hand.
The reality is that great powers have national interests and it is their power to impose those interests that makes them great powers.