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A New Way of Looking at China

“I continue to believe that a constructive US-China relationship benefits our two peoples and benefits the entire globe,” said President Obama before beginning his meeting with Xi Jinping in Lima on Saturday. “And the structure and framework of cooperation, the frequent meetings and consultations that we’ve established I think have been extremely productive.” 

The meeting in the Peruvian capital with his Chinese counterpart was undoubtedly the final one of his term.

Obama, although expressing concerns, could nonetheless not stop talking about cooperation between his country and Xi’s. Yet after so many opportunities to exchange views—this was the ninth meeting of the two since Xi became the Communist Party’s general secretary in November 2012—China’s behavior has deteriorated, almost across the board. 

During Xi’s four years, Beijing moved fast to close off its domestic market to foreign competitors, continued to transfer materials and components for North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, and tried to redraw its boundaries at the expense of neighbors, from India to South Korea.

These attempts affected more than states in close proximity to China. Beijing, unfortunately, threatened the post-war system by, among other things, trying to close off international water and airspace, thereby impinging on freedom of navigation. If the US has had any consistent foreign policy since its first years, it has been the defense of the global commons. Of particular concern in this regard is Beijing’s provocative November 2013 declaration of its East China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone.

China has also directly challenged America. Despite last September’s agreement announced in the Rose Garden by Obama and Xi, China is still cyber attacking American corporations to steal commercial secrets. And propaganda blasts against Washington occur almost daily.

Yes, Beijing is cooperating with the Obama administration on climate change, but that should not be surprising. China can make—and honor—climate promises because it is emitting less carbon even though automobile usage is increasing. Last year, for instance, the country’s carbon dioxide emissions fell at least 0.7% percent, and this year they are on track to drop as well.

China is emitting less primarily because factories are not working full-time. Its manufacturing output appears to have contracted in 2015, and the sector may be shrinking again this year. Beijing, in short, is making no sacrifice by promising to emit less. On the contrary, Chinese officials through climate deals may well be trying to rein in the American economy, which is likely to boom if Trump succeeds in lowering taxes, cutting back the Affordable Care Act, and reducing regulation.

In Lima, Obama spoke as if meetings were the goal and measure of his diplomacy. In fact, the president will be measured by what those meetings and consultations actually accomplished.

Although the Administration, to its credit, strengthened regional alliances and bolstered other relations, the president’s China policies did not prevent China from increasingly challenging its neighbors, the United States, and international norms. Yet the failure of America’s China policies is not a recent phenomenon. Since Nixon’s groundbreaking 1972 visit, Sino-US relations have progressed through many phases, but in the last two decades American attempts at relationship-building have worked better for China than America.

President-elect Trump intends to reverse that dynamic. During the campaign, he talked a tough line, for instance calling for a 45 percent across-the-board tariff on Chinese goods and making it clear he would impose costs on China in general. Almost no Washington policymaker thinks that way, but Xi’s Beijing has not, except in the climate area, reciprocated America’s generous initiatives.

Xi this month told Trump over the phone that cooperation is “the only correct choice for China and the United States,” but the question is whether an increasingly assertive Beijing is able to cooperate with Washington.

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