The ‘Season of Summits’ continues

8th Round S&ED June 2016 (Xinhua)Well really no sooner had the G7 at Ise-Shima Summit (May 26th-27th) in Japan concluded, then our attention was redirected to the US-China 8th S&ED (Security and Economic Dialogue) that concluded in Beijing on June 7th.  

The annual meeting is a chance to take the temperature once again of US-China relations. The Summit, as the name implies is made up of two tracks – the Strategic Track led by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry and State Councilor Yang Jiechi and each is a special representative to their respective leader.  Meanwhile the Economic Track was led by US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang.  

Even a quick read of the two communiques reveals just how different the tracks are.  The Strategic Dialogue took some 19 pages to report on its collective efforts, while the Economic Track took a mere 3.  

It is clear that the US came at the economic discussions urging changes and reforms to Chinese economic behavior and bringing the complaints and difficulties that US businesses have, and continue to face, in China. From the media report, below from the  the NYT,  it is clear that there is growing frustration in the US business community over the  array of regulations that inhibit US business interests in China:

James McGregor, Greater China chairman for communications consultancy APCO Worldwide, who attended a Tuesday event for executives with senior U.S. and Chinese officials, said executives were blunt in stressing how negative things were becoming for foreign companies in China.

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Back Again: The Global Order in Our Sights

Munk School - 940x622It has been a long hiatus.  Truth be told, I was planning to remain silent for an entire year.  But I couldn’t resist coming back before then.  As it turns out – just on the cusp of Memorial Day weekend for my American colleagues – and in the face of the announcement that Donald Trump had enough delegates to be nominated in Cleveland at the Republican Convention in July, I am back. The fact is too much is happening both in the world of global governance and also in the examination of global order ideas.  So it’s time to end my silence.

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Leaders, Leaders: Where Have All the Leaders Gone

Obama Press Conference



Well the debate, discussion, dialogue – call it what you will – among the international relations experts and pundits began with the assertion by Walter Russell Meade and others over the return of geopolitics. This debate has grown since with the rising tide of chaos in the international system – the Middle East – Syria, Iraq, now Gaza – the Ukraine, Afghanistan, the rising tensions in the South and East China Seas.  It has become – especially for experts from the US – a full scale (re)examination of US leadership.  As noted by Peter Baker in the NYT:

It’s a very tangled mess,” said Gary Samore, a former national security aide to Mr. Obama and now president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group. “You name it, the world is aflame. Foreign policy is always complicated. We always have a mix of complicated interests. That’s not unusual. What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere. It makes it hard for governments to cope with that.

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Where’s the ‘Number Two’?

Xi and Obama



With the gathering of US and China officials in Beijing for the sixth S&ED (Security and Economic Dialogue) meeting of the two, it is reasonable to take a step back to assess where relations are at the moment between these two great powers.  I was tempted to do this in part because the meetings are now happening but also because I reviewed, just the other day, a piece on global order by my colleague  Parag Khanna called a “World Reimagined” in the The National Interest.

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From Past to Future Historical Lessons and the US-China Relationship

World War I (2)


The historiography of World War I and the examination of the events that led to war on August 4, 1914 are enormous.  Notwithstanding that very large historical and analytic record, the examination of the approach to World War I is in the process of receiving a new infusion as I suggested  recently in The Flood of Remembrance – 100 Years Since the Great War approach the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak. Indeed this very article and the others that accompany it are part of this new look at an old issue.

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Avoiding A New Cold War – I don’t think so!

East China Seas ADA33CDA-EEA5-489A-BB1D-3EFFDCBCFD0F_mw1024_n_s

Fashioning a moderately cooperative relationship between the US and China – the two great powers in the international system today  – has occupied many minds.  International relations specialists continue to be haunted by ‘power transition’ thesis.  According to this hypothesis, when a rising power challenges the leading status quo power, competition and often conflict follows.  Indeed historical examinations over the last century and a bit suggest that when these conditions prevail, with the most notable exception of the US and Great Britain in the late nineteenth century, these changes in the power distribution among the great powers lead to competition, rivalry and conflict.  It certainly underscores the long standing effort by the Harvard Study Group – the group I have been involved with for a number of years – and many other bilateral US-China efforts to focus their attentions on the changing dynamic of the US-China relationship.  As Beida’s Yiping Huang has written recently:

But times have changed. Today, although the US is still the world’s largest economy, China is already the second-largest and is set to overtake the US with

in the next 10 years. It is, therefore, reasonable for China and other developing countries to want to be part of the new rule-making process. But a transition of global superpowers could make all parties very nervous, as in history it often ended in war. This makes China–US cooperation all the more important, not only to avoid major confrontation but also to build a better world (January 19, 2014

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At Least a Better Tone – On Sino-US Relations

Xi-Obama at Sunnylands

A noticeable difference in tenor.  That is the first thing that struck me about this Dialogue meeting just recently concluded in Beijing.  The tenor of this Harvard-CASS Think Tank Dialogue on “Towards a New Model of Major-Country Relations between China and the United States” differed significantly from the Harvard-Beida Conference of January 2013.  The earlier Harvard-Beida Conference was filled with defensiveness and harsh questioning by our Chinese colleagues over the ‘American pivot’.  Chinese experts made repeated references to US efforts to contain China.  The suspicions over US policy and its intentions in Asia – especially US efforts to contain China – were largely absent from this meeting – apparently the 9th in the series.  Instead, in this meeting there were numerous references to the 35th anniversary of US-China relations.

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Engaging in Concert – The Fifth S&ED


This coming week the fifth round of the S&ED (Strategic and Economic Dialogue) between China and the US will be held in Washington.  Many have characterized this as a monumental “bureaucratic circus”  with each side bring as many as two hundred officials to these now annual meetings.  And at times these events indeed have appeared to be like that – a kind of gigantic bilateral “meet and greet”.

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Without Trust and Without Paranoia: US-China Relations

It was a time for informal face-to-face contact – just ended – the California summit between Presidents Xi and Obama. There is a strand of global summitry that emphasizes contact between leaders. Such contact can be disastrous of course. Kennedy’s encounter with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, left leaders with misconceptions about the other that ultimately led each to take steps that raised threats and crisis. Let’s hope that nothing like this occurs as a result of this summit. And the reality is that the ‘world of summits’ has changed mightily. The two presidents will see each other again shortly in St. Petersburg Russia at the G20 Leaders Summit. And they will meet again shortly thereafter in Asia at the EAS.

What can we draw as the consequences of this informal meeting of the leaders of these two great powers? Ostensibly the two leaders are searching for a “new type of great power relationship” (xinxing daguo guanxi) – The announcement of this informal summit and the search for a different kind of relationship – read all that as an effort by IR types to avoid what international relations theory tells is the likely outcome of rivalry, friction and conflict between an established superpower and a rising one. Thus many of the foreign policy experts have indeed waded in to describe what might result from such a meeting – and give some expression to the ongoing Sino-American relationship.

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy, the consummate realist suggested a modest result:

Neither Obama nor Xi can alter the core interests of the two countries, or wish away the various issues where those interests already conflict or are likely to do so in the future. The best they can achieve is a better understanding of each other’s red lines and resolve and some agreements on those issues where national interests overlap. In this way, each can hope to keep things from getting worse and at the margin make relations a bit warmer. … But even if Obama is successful this weekend, this effort is unlikely to prevent Sino-American rivalry from intensifying in the future. The basic problem is that the two state’s core grand strategies are at odds and good rapport between these two particular leaders won’t prevent those tensions from reemerging down the road.

Walt acknowledges the description just referred to is a pessimistic one (he does describe a far more optimistic alternative) based on “… Sino-American rivalry in the future no matter how well Obama and Xi (or their successors) get on this weekend. And so for Walt “intense competition is likely”.

Then there is Walt’s FP compatriot – Dan Drezner. Now Drezner is no realist – and in fact in some ways leans more to a neo-liberal framing of international relations (I suspect Dan may not buy this). But Drezner reflected on this upcoming summit at his blog (I anticipate that this blog post is not his final word on this) by referencing Harvard’s Iain Johnston in a piece Jognston wrote recently for International Security examining the growing Chinese assertiveness – which Johnston largely rejects. The lesson for Drezner is China is no revisionist power. As he argues, “Since 2008, China has had multiple opportunities to disrupt the US-Created international order, and Beijing has passed on almost all these opportunities.” So for Drezner the landscape is filled with collaborative opportunities between the US and China:

Now let’s be clear – China is doing almost all of this to advance its own narrow self-interest. None of the above means that China is suddenly going to embrace the US perspective on human rights or the South China Sea. Still, there are a healthy number of issue areas where China’s interests are pretty congruent with the United States, and where China has taken constructive policy steps. … My main point here is that China is a great power that is inevitably going to disagree with the United Sattes on a host of issues. China is not, however, a revisionist actor hell-bent on subverting the post-1945/post 1989 global governance. To use John Ikenberry’s language, recent Sino-American disputes are taking place within the context of the current international order. They are not about radical changes to that international order. Indeed, contrary to the arguments of some, the current system has displayed surprising resilience.

In a curious way this perspective resonates if only a little with a far more pessimistic view – that expressed most pointedly by Yan Xuetong the Dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University. A strong nationalist, and realist, Yan Xuetong is not well known outside China-expert circles. FP did themselves and their publics a great favor in printing a post by the Dean entitled, “Let’s Not be Friends“. For some time now Yan Xuetong has been arguing that leaders and their officials should not promote a vision of a trust-based collaborative relationship – those arguing for it will only be disappointed. The US and China are competitors. But that need not prevent incidents of collaboration:

States cooperate not because of mutual trust, but because of shared interests that make cooperation safe and productive. China and the United States should look hard to identify what these incentives and shared interests are – and focus on developing positive cooperation when their interests overlap or complement one another, such as on denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula, and preventive cooperation when their interests conflict, such as on preventing collisions in [the] South China Sea. … Preventive cooperation differs from positive cooperation because it is based on conflicting — rather than shared — interests. … Areas of friction are likely to become more common in the coming years, but the two countries can skillfully manage their competition if they work to minimize these emerging conflicts — not only in the military sector but also in nontraditional security sectors such as energy, finance counterterrorism in the Middle East, anti-piracy in Somali Sea, and even climate change. … Encouraging China and the United States to prioritize preventive cooperation does not mean they should abandon efforts to build mutual trust. However, it does mean the two countries can stabilize their strategic relations without it. The worst-case scenario is not that China and the United States is not that China and the United States will face more strategic conflicts in the coming years, but that they never learn how to develop cooperation based on the lack of mutual trust, thus allowing a small conflict to escalate into a major one.

I suppose it is a framing a little like: “don’t trust but verify”. The dilemma I fear however is that all this realist formulation will lead – at least in US circles if not Chinese ones – to analogize the relationship to something like the cold war contestants, even as they draw distinctions between the two sets of rivals. Simplistic competitive framing is too easy and too familiar. The Washington-types that always lean on “hedging” and insist on greater military preparedness will target the competitive and forget the collaborative. Inexorably the US and China will be characterized as the new cold war rivals.

I have argued for the necessity of wedging cooperation into the relationship and rejecting any logic to US-Soviet competition. In the past I have argued that “both friend and foe” (yi di yi you) is the better framing for the great power relationship than “neither friend nor foe” (fei di fei you) – a framing often used by Chinese experts. Starting at the post, “Not Required to Choose – A Strategy for US-China Relations” I have argued that defining the relationship as including a collaborative dimension is necessary to avoid sliding into a more difficult unpleasant great power relationship. Yes, it will be difficult especially for US decision-makers to retain the partnership aspect – that is both collaborative and competitive. -Without that collaborative element to the relationship, however, Washington leadership will be all too willing to accept just a rivalrous competitive relationship with China. It is after all politically so much easier.

Let’s not make it easy for the claque.

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Still A Dialogue of the Deaf – Pivot and Containment


On the eve of the first summit between US President Obama and China’s new President Xi Jinping scheduled for the 7th and 8th at Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California,  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered an annual and important statement at the Shangri-La Dialogue.  The speech entitled “The US Approach to Regional Security”, is not markedly distinct fromrecent speeches by the new Secretary of Defense or speeches by the National Security Advisor Thomas E Donilon – except maybe the announcement that the USS Ponce would be acquiring a solid-state laser to combat missiles and small speed boats, etc., – but still the imbalance between security and military and broader Asia-Pacific initiatives remains stark.

Now he is the Secretary of Defense giving a speech at a military and intelligence conference but the focus on grand strategy, tactical improvements and the strengthening of US allies and alliances is evident. And it didn’t long at all for the Chinese to respond.  In the question and answer Major General Yao Yunzhu, the director of the Center for China – America Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing took the opportunity to criticize the speech arguing: (1) it was not at all clear to the Chinese that the US wanted a “comprehensive”  relationship with China; and (2) that the US rebalancing or pivot amounted to anything other than “containment” of China.

Now the “containment” refrain is a Chinese point of view that you cannot miss when discussing US-China relations with Chinese experts and officials.  Indeed at the most recent meeting of the Harvard – Peking University dialogue called “The Challenge and Cooperation”  held in Beijing in January 2013, the refrain of containment was persistent from our Chinese colleagues.  Now the repeated charge is a bit much – not everything is about China – (indeed as our colleague Joe Nye asserted , “only China can contain China”) but a speech like Chuck Hagel’s certainly might well be interpreted in such a way.

So the speech is strong on alliance renewal and/or development – Japan, Korea and then allies further out in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and even Burma.  It says little about China other than efforts to improve military-to-military contacts – and that is not inconsequential.  But the speech is otherwise disappointing.

Secretary of Defense repeats some standard lines that warrant some reaction. First Hagel claims: “The Asia-Pacific rebalance is not a retreat from other regions of the world”.  Well it may not be a retreat but it sure seems like an escape from the Middle East.  I can’t imagine any US leadership not wishing a respite from the Middle East after Iraq and Afghanistan and the endless unproductive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  And with budget constraints, I would think that some form of zero sum game is being played out here.  The real dilemma for the US is that it may not be possible to disengage from the Middle East as it would like and the Middle east may require more resources than the US military currently wants to commit.

The second standard line is: “In support of this goal, America is implementing a rebalance – which is primarily a diplomatic, economic and cultural strategy.”  Now again this is a strategic speech by the Secretary of Defense but a one paragraph description in an entire speech of what is claimed repeatedly by officials to be a diplomatic, economic and cultural strategy – I got to say doesn’t really cut it. Moreover in that one paragraph the Secretary of Defense raises the Trans Pacific Partnership – a new trade and investment initiative –  which most Chinese analysts, in fact not even Chinese analysts will tell you is all about the exclusion of China.

In Asia, Secretary Hagel see a range of persistent and emerging threats, including:

  • North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, and its continued provocations;
  • Ongoing land and maritime disputes and conflicts over natural resources;
  • The continued threat of natural disaster, the curse of poverty and the threat of pandemic disease;
  • Environmental degradation;
  • Illicit trafficking in people, weapons, drugs, and other dangerous materials – including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
  • And the growing threat of disruptive activities in space and cyberspace.

And these matters are exactly where a comprehensive US-China relationship can be built.  If there are rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific and in the China-US relationship, here is the starting point.

But you can’t look to this speech for any guide to a more positive or more comprehensive relationship.  Maybe such a relationship will become clearer at the upcoming Presidents’ meeting. Let’s watch!

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