By David E. Sanger, NY Times, June 9, 2013
WASHINGTON–President Obama and Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, emerged over the weekend in California from their first lengthy talks declaring their determination to keep disputes over cyberespionage and territorial claims in the Pacific from descending into a cold war mentality and to avoid the pitfalls of a rising power confronting an established one.
But officials on both sides described forces at work in Beijing and in Washington that risked pushing Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi into exactly the trap they warned against.
American intelligence officials have told Mr. Obama that the cyberattacks on American companies emanating from China, which have swept up billions of dollars’ worth of intellectual property, are caused by the increasing desperation inside China to keep its economy growing at 7 or 8 percent a year. Chinese leaders consider that rate necessary to create enough jobs for the millions of young Chinese who flock to the coastal manufacturing centers each year.
The territorial claims are an expression of China’s sense that it is ready to seize its moment as a global power. American officials who attended the summit meeting at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., say Mr. Xi gave no ground on those claims.
Mr. Obama’s team was looking for indications of how the new Chinese president–more confident and probably more powerful than his predecessor–would balance his nation’s short-term needs and its long-term interests.
“There was definitely an intent to send a signal to the bureaucracies on both sides that any kind of downward spiral into overt and sustained competition would not be in either side’s interest,” said one senior American official who participated in some of the meetings. But on the questions of cyberattacks and territorial claims, “that is where you would see a flash of nationalism,” the official said.
This meeting was not concerned with suppressing those flashes, but with managing them. “This was the most important meeting between an American president and a Chinese leader in 40 years, since Nixon and Mao, ” said Joseph S. Nye Jr., a Harvard political scientist who once guided the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates, including some that tracked China’s economic and military rise. He said Mr. Obama was right to work on first creating a relationship and a tone, and dealing with specific conflicts later.
That might be a lesson from Mr. Obama’s dealings with the Chinese leadership during his first term. He began in 2009 by making it clear to Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi’s predecessor, that the United States was not seeking to contain Chinese power; Mr. Obama said in a speech delivered on his first trip to China that the United States could not do so even if it tried. The speech was part of a careful effort to reassure the Chinese that the United States was willing to make room for a new superpower, as long as it played by international rules. For a while, there was talk of a “G-2,” an economic collaboration between the largest- and second-largest economies in the world.
That talk evaporated quickly. By 2010, China’s military had made it clear that it viewed Mr. Obama’s overture as an expression of American weakness. Beijing’s confrontations in the South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines intensified; so did a dispute with Japan over a pile of rocks with virtually no economic value to either nation.
Mr. Obama angrily told aides that he needed “leverage” over the Chinese, according to several officials. And Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, asked the Australian prime minister over lunch, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” according to a diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks.
Now, with Mr. Xi in charge in China, Mr. Obama sees a chance to restart the relationship.
So far, Mr. Obama’s approach has been to try to get China to agree to what the president calls “norms” of behavior, akin to trade rules. But with Mr. Xi at his side, Mr. Obama observed that “these are uncharted waters” because “you don’t have the kinds of protocols that have governed military issues, for example, and arms issues, where nations have a lot of experience in trying to negotiate what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
Nor is there trust: the Chinese point out that the United States has used cyberattacks as an offensive weapon against Iran while the Pentagon warned in a recent report that China was pouring huge resources into a cyberarsenal of its own.
China’s military sees American technological power as one more form of pressure to be countered, just like the American naval presence in the Pacific. That is zero-sum cold war thinking–but China and the United States are far more economically interdependent than the United States and the Soviet Union ever were.
That is no guarantee that the two leaders will work out what Mr. Xi calls a “new type of great-power relationship.” But each man clearly understands the damage that the other could do to his legacy, and each has a motive for reining in the forces that would argue for continued low-level confrontation.