It all seemed so promising. In December 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama flew to Copenhagen to try to reach an agreement on a legally binding treaty for climate change. The sheer force of Obama's charisma and drive -- he had made climate change a top priority -- coupled with the momentum in the United States and the developed world, made a positive outcome likely: if only he could convince China, the world's biggest polluter, to cut its emissions.
But the summit was a disaster, as the Chinese made it clear that they would not yield. Despite a burst of eleventh-hour diplomacy, personally negotiated by Obama, the final agreement fell far short of creating a new global consensus on stopping global warming. "I think they had high expectations their first year of all the things they could do with China," says the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Victor Cha, who served as director of Asian affairs at the White House from 2004 to 2007. "Then, starting with climate change, the disappointments followed one after the other."
On June 7 and June 8, Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit in California. China watchers in Washington don't expect much in the way of concrete "deliverables": an agreement to curtail hacking, for instance, or for the U.S. to scale back its "rebalancing" to Asia, a policy that has greatly angered the Chinese. Gone are the days when China would support a U.S. position "while turning its back on its own previously held view," says Roy Kamphausen, a former China hand at the Pentagon.
Xi, meeting with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in preparation for the summit, told his guest that it's time to explore "a new type of great power relationship." What that means is up for debate, but perhaps it's best described as a partnership of equals, with no one side able to effect change on the other without an equally weighty concession. "Yes, both sides have given ground," Hu Xijin, the editor of China's nationalist tabloid the Global Times, said in a phone interview. "And they are both acting with great restraint."
The Copenhagen summit happened as the world was waking up to the fact that China was the great winner of the 2008 financial crisis, emerging with its economy mostly intact. Projections of when China would overtake the United States economically began appearing in greater frequency, and Chinese diplomats began shedding the conservatism and relative timidity that characterized most of the reign of Hu Jintao, China's paramount leader until November 2012. That's the point, notes Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, when most U.S. national security elites woke up to the fact that China could be a problem.
Most of the political gains the United States achieved in Asia since 2009 happened in spite of China, not because of it. The liberalization of Burma and the warming of U.S.-Burma ties, for example, happened in part because of its government's fear of Chinese encroachment. The United States owes its improving relationships with South Korea, Japan, and a host of smaller Asian nations in part to their worries about China's rise. And China's inability to rein in North Korea has tightened the bond between the United States and South Korea, and the United States and Japan.
Cha, an expert on North Korea, believes that the Obama administration's biggest success in handling Pyongyang was "conveying credibly to the Chinese that North Korean provocations are going to elicit a South Korean response" -- and more broadly, that China's actions are alienating its neighbors. (Separately, Japanese officials have mentioned that North Korea is a great excuse for their military buildup, a fact of which Beijing is likely well aware.)