BEIJING – As Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, joined by a group of U.S. officials, meet with senior Chinese leaders here this week, they will face an American-Chinese relationship riven by a strategic rivalry not seen before, a situation that neither side appears in the mood to improve.
Complicating matters is the one-man leadership style of President Xi Jinping, who appears to make the big decisions on national security — meant to challenge U.S. primacy in the Asia-Pacific region and establish a China-centric alternative — without much consultation.
China’s push against two of America’s major allies, Japan and South Korea; its thrust into the South China Sea, which threatens freedom of navigation; and the imposition of an air defense zone near Japan reflect Xi’s thinking about China’s rightful place in Asia, analysts say.
Both China and the United States have set low expectations for progress on the issues scheduled to be discussed at the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, intended as a venue for the two sides to hash out difficult topics.
The best prospect seems to be the effort toward a bilateral investment treaty that China agreed to start negotiations on in 2013.
Talk of spying unlikely
In one critical area — cyberespionage — there is unlikely to be any real discussion. After the Justice Department won the indictments of five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on charges of cybertheft in May, China suspended a working group that had held only two sessions.
The atmosphere between Beijing and Washington has deteriorated to such an extent since Xi and President Obama met in California a year ago that even pressuring a nuclear North Korea, the one area they agreed to pursue at that time, has almost vanished from the agenda, U.S. officials said.
The Chinese decided to link the question of how to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons to other big issues, like China’s territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas, and several months ago, the officials said, Beijing suspended meetings on that matter.
On the Chinese side, Xi is making decisions based on his interpretation of “China’s national greatness and military effectiveness,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.
Xi’s sense that Obama is a lame duck propels his inclination to “push and push again” in the South China and East China Seas, Shi said.
Senior Obama administration officials say they believe that Xi made all the major strategic decisions since the California meeting virtually single-handedly.
These include the imposition of the air defense zone in airspace claimed by Japan last November and the dispatch of a billion-dollar oil rig belonging to a Chinese energy company into waters also claimed by Vietnam.
Xi’s top-down style makes navigating Beijing’s opaque bureaucratic system even more hazardous for the Obama administration. A national security commission set up by Xi has turned out to be focused more on domestic policy than on foreign, Chinese analysts say.
There is little chance that the negative tone between Beijing and Washington will change much as a result of the dialogue this week, or even before Obama leaves the White House, Shi said.
“I don’t think either side has the intention of reversing the trends,” he said.