Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.12.18

What Do the U.S. and China Expect From One Another?

Based on President Obama's visits to China for the APEC Summit in Beijing (November 10 and 11) and to the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, it has become obvious that the United States and China are expecting different things from one another.

Chairman Xi Jinping places great importance on staging summits with foreign leaders, just as when he visited India. As for President Obama, he took him to Zhongnanhai, the center of China's power structure. There, he talked to the President in a friendly manner and, with the weight of history as background, he emphasized that China and the United States should build "new great power relations." President Obama responded that he has learned from history. It seemed as if China's efforts to establish a friendly ambiance at Zhongnanhai had almost succeeded.

By contrast, Chairman Xi Jinping treated Japan's Prime Minister Abe coolly. "Sulking face" is the perfect term to describe Xi Jinping's facial expressions when he was shaking Prime Minister Abe's hand. It was obviously for a domestic audience that Chairman Xi Jinping put on such an expression. Nonetheless, his attitude toward President Obama was quite a contrast to the one toward Prime Minister Abe.

As for what is most important for China, that it be recognized that "China is a great power," President Obama did not confirm that. People's Daily, whose agenda is to tout the foreign policy achievements of Chairman Xi Jinping, reported only vaguely what President Obama had to say in his regard.

On November 15, four days after the Zhongnanhai Summit, President Obama spoke at the University of Queensland. He highlighted a stance of the United States that had not been made clear in China. Throughout his speech, he emphasized that the U.S. was placing on the Asia Pacific region and the belief in a democratic political system, as well as a free economy.

President Obama stated, "as the world's only superpower, the United States has unique responsibilities." Although there are differences between the terms "super power" and "great power," it seems that, through this statement, President Obama pointed out, indirectly, that U.S. does not regard China as a great power.

He continued to say that "We have an ironclad commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and security of every ally. And we'll expand cooperation between allies..." and "...we will continue to deepen our engagement using every element of American power..." In this respect, the fact that he not only emphasized the importance of alliances, but also expressed his intention to further strengthen alliances drew everyone's attention.

The first country that President Obama mentioned as an ally of the U.S. was Japan. Furthermore, when he emphasized that democracy is not just a Western value, he pointed out that Japan, Taiwan, South Korea all have built thriving democracies, again placing Japan first. President Obama's considerate comments about Japan were a direct contrast to Xi Jinping's chilly attitude toward Japan.

Furthermore, President Obama made statements that were welcome, including: "Disputes over territory, remote islands and rocky shoals that threaten to spiral into confrontation."; "...nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace; that an effective security order for Asia must be based -- not on spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small -- but on alliances of mutual security, international law and international norms that are upheld, and the peaceful resolution of disputes."; and "...we are also encouraging China to adhere to the same rules as other nations."

What does U.S. expect of China? President Obama stated in both Beijing and University of Queensland that "...the United States welcomes the continuing rise of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and stable and that plays a responsible role in world affairs." Here, President Obama must have been forthcoming with respect to the position of the United States.

Chinese leaders must have found President Obama's speech, up to this point, hard enough to swallow. But, President Obama went even further, referring to prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong. He said, "Today, people in Hong Kong are speaking out for their universal rights. And so here in Asia and around the world, America supports free and fair elections, because citizens must be free to choose their own leaders --as in Thailand where we are urging a quick return to inclusive, civilian rule." (Note: It was obvious which country he had in mind as he made this statement.) "We support freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, a free and open Internet, strong civil societies..."

Chinese leaders are very sensitive about how to deal with the protests in Hong Kong, because a wrong step could prompt demands for democracy on the mainland. During the press conference after the U.S.-China summit, in a question directed to President Obama, a journalist stated that "...Chinese newspapers have disparaged your leadership style and have fueled speculation that the United States is a black hand behind the protests in Hong Kong." That comment was said to have been a tense moment. But Obama responded, "...I was unequivocal in saying to President Xi that the United States had no involvement in fostering the protests that took place there" and "But I did describe for him that the United States, as a matter of foreign policy but also a matter of our values, are going to consistently speak out on the right of people to express themselves, and encourage the elections that take place in Hong Kong are transparent and fair and reflective of the opinions of people there." So, to us, the gist of both this response and his speech in Brisbane are not so different. Nonetheless, it is likely that China may have found the Brisbane speech intolerable.

The spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not directly touch on Obama's remarks regarding Hong Kong. He just remarked, "the two leaders agreed to promote building new great power relations," though this statement only emphasizes the part that is convenient for China.

DuoWei News (a Chinese language newspaper based in the U.S. It has connections in mainland China and is knowledgeable about Chinese politics. It is not controlled by The Publicity Department of the Communist Party, so it can report relatively freely, and is read in mainland China as well as in Taiwan.) indicated its displeasure about Obama's remarks on the prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong. It reported them with a headline: "President Obama completely changed his promise during APEC and made one-sided remark on Occupy Central in Hong Kong." This is as if to say that President Obama was duplicitous.

For President Obama, this was an important occasion to talk about an issue of interest for Japan, China, and Australia. He spoke about China's problems in a straight forward manner. Seeing America's firm intention to further strengthen the trust of its allies, such as Japan, is, indeed, compelling. For its part, Japan also has to value the Japan-U.S. relationship and exert efforts so that the U.S. will not falter in its current position of attaching importance to Japan.