China, not surprisingly, is worried about these new developments. They in many ways reinforce China's abiding suspicions about the United States. In Chinese eyes, the United States has always been concerned primarily with protecting its own global dominance -- which perforce means doing everything it can to retard or disrupt China's rise. That America lost its stride in the global financial crisis and the weak recovery since then while China in 2010 became the world's second-largest economy has only increased Beijing's concerns about Washington's determination to postpone the day when China inevitably surpasses the United States to become the world's most powerful country.
Beijing, for example, sees basically hostile American efforts in the following spheres: promoting dissent in China in order to create instability that America can then fan via cyber activities into upheaval that will bring down the Chinese Communist Party's rule; pressing China to revalue its currency so as to increase destabilizing unemployment in China and direct Americans' attention away from the United States' own failures; creating problems for China by fanning fears about Beijing's intentions among its neighbors and encouraging those, such as Vietnam, that have traditionally harbored deep suspicions of Chinese ambitions; forging cooperation among countries -- especially the major democracies -- in Asia to create obstacles to China's achieving its rightful role as the major power in the region; challenging China's model of development as an alternative to the tarnished Western democratic model; and using measures such as the formation of the TPP to reduce the scope for internationalization of the renminbi, which China thinks is an important step in reining in America's abuse of the dollar's role as the global reserve currency. In sum, the president's Asia-wide strategy and some of the rhetoric accompanying it played directly into the perception of many Chinese that all American actions are a conspiracy to hold down or actually disrupt China's rise.
China's leaders retain enough respect for American strength and capabilities that Obama's self-assured declaration of America's ongoing leadership role in Asia -- backed by ample evidence of comprehensive U.S. strategic thinking and diplomacy -- has at the same time at least raised the unwelcome possibility for Beijing of a significantly new context for China's own regional strategy.
What Will Happen?
The American press portrayed the Obama trip as affirming American leadership of Asia, challenging and trumping China at every turn. The fact that the United States' initiatives apparently received warm vocal support from nearly all major countries at the East Asia Summit reinforced this perception. But the reality is more complex, both as to what the president sought to do and as to the likely results.
A more complex U.S. strategy. The Obama administration does not seek to confront China across the board. Rather, it has adopted a two-pronged approach: to reaffirm and strengthen cooperative ties with China; and to establish a strong and credible American presence across Asia to both encourage constructive Chinese behavior and to provide confidence to other countries in the region that they need not yield to potential Chinese regional hegemony.
The administration is thus continuing to make focused efforts to develop close personal ties between the key top officials in Washington and Beijing. Obama has met with Chinese President Hu 10 times (including their meeting in Honolulu) and with Premier Wen Jiabao repeatedly. Clinton has made a special effort to engage her chief Chinese interlocutor, Dai Bingguo, on a personal level, regularly holding informal meetings with him that last for hours. And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has established very close communications with his counterpart, Vice Premier Wang Qishan.
In these private meetings the spirit has been one of explaining each side's positions in terms of more than formal talking points in order to gain mutual understanding and increase mutual trust. The starting point has been mutual respect and recognition of the deep interconnected interests between China and the United States. These closed-door discussions have thus been designed to lessen the chances of unnecessary Sino-U.S. hostility. This quiet dimension of bilateral diplomacy seeks to manage U.S.-China tensions going forward and to set the tone and agenda for the many regular U.S.-China meetings across the two governments throughout the course of any given year.