One of the distinctive and uniquely valuable features of the German Marshall Fund’s Stockholm China Forum series is its regularity. Meeting on a semi-annual basis, with a group that includes many of the same people, makes it possible to gain a better understanding of changing sentiments and perceptions of China’s rise in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
The last several years have seen some striking shifts. Prior to 2010, European observers generally had a more relaxed view of China, and of the prospects for peace and stability in Asia, than at least some of their U.S. counterparts. Subsequently, Beijing’s increasing assertiveness toward its neighbors, and to a degree, in its dealings with European governments, led to greater skepticism and wariness. For their part, Chinese participants have tended to adopt a tough — even at times truculent — stand, pushing back at what they have seen as unfair criticism of their government’s policy on maritime disputes and at the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia, which they have blamed for heightened regional tensions.
In certain respects, the most recent meeting of the Stockholm China Forum on June 28-29 resembled the earlier sessions of three or four years ago more than those of the recent past. Most notable from a U.S. perspective was the conciliatory posture of the Chinese delegation. Virtually every presentation stressed the importance of, and the prospects for, enhanced cooperation. The newly installed leadership in Beijing was described as eager to work together with the advanced industrial nations on climate change, counter-proliferation, trade (including possible participation in the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership), global economic governance, cybersecurity, and maritime security. Instead of arguing that the United States has entered into a period of rapid relative decline in its wealth, power, and prestige, meeting participants made a point of saying that the United States remains the “sole superpower,” while their country is still only “the world’s largest developing country.” The U.S. “pivot” or “rebalance” was mentioned in passing, but with little more than mild chagrin. Gone were earlier warnings that the Obama administration had embarked on a dangerously destabilizing course in Asia, along with accusations of attempted “encirclement.”
In their place were fresh and more welcoming slogans. Several participants stressed the new Chinese leadership’s desire to establish a “new type of great power relationship” with the United States. Others quoted the words of President Xi Jinping at his recent Sunnylands summit with President Barack Obama to the effect that “the vast Pacific Ocean” was big enough to accommodate both the United States and China. The only discordant note was the heated reaction by Chinese participants to mention of their country’s ongoing dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In an interesting verbal formulation, Tokyo’s insistence that it is the rightful owner of the islands was described as an attempt to change the post-World War II status quo. As is almost always the case, public statements by Chinese analysts were consistent with the “Party line” emanating from Beijing and they may indicate a genuine belief on the part of the new leadership that, after a period of tension, a marked improvement in its foreign relations is now attainable.
Another, less optimistic interpretation is also possible. Six months into its second term, the Obama administration seems less committed to the “pivot” than it once was. Budgets are extremely tight, the new secretaries of state and defense are not as closely identified with this project as their predecessors, an endless string of crises in the Middle East continues to demand attention, and, after several years of tough talk, the White House now seems eager to smooth things over with Beijing.
Under the circumstances, it makes good sense for China’s leaders to extend an olive branch to the United States, holding out the promise of cooperation on issues like North Korea, which seem unlikely to be fulfilled, even as it continues to strengthen its military capabilities and to take a hard line towards several of its Asian neighbors, especially Japan. Albeit with somewhat more finesse, Xi Jinping and his colleagues appear to be pursuing the same strategic goals as their predecessors : asserting China’s claims over the water and resources of the Western Pacific, eroding the foundations of U.S. alliances, and moving toward a position of eventual regional preponderance.
Reactions to China’s new “charm offensive” among both European and U.S. observers at the 12th Stockholm China Forum were mixed, with some hopeful and others dubious. Among European participants, the issue that stirred the strongest passions was not Beijing’s behavior at home or abroad but rather the allegation that the U.S. National Security Agency had been monitoring the telephone and email traffic of their fellow citizens. Unless the Obama administration can contain the damage done by the Snowden affair, transatlantic ties could become increasingly strained, even as the United States and Europe separately seek better relations with China.