Why 2015 Will Be a Great Year for US-China Relations

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It’s official: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the U.S. is scheduled for September. Xinhua reported today that Xi, in a phone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, accepted the “invitation to pay a state visit to the United States in September.” Xi is also expected to attend celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in New York this September.

Now the race is on for both the U.S. and China to hammer out some deliverables over the course of the next seven months. My colleague Ankit Panda provided some predictions of what topics might be on the agenda, including progress on a bilateral investment treaty (BIT). Other possible topics of discussion: military confidence building measures and agreement on what approach to take at December’s climate change conference to be held in Paris.

While the announcements won’t be made until September, the discussions are already taking place. Two high-ranking U.S. State Department officials are in Beijing this week to begin laying the groundwork for Xi’s visit: new Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel. Blinken stopped in China as part of a larger tour of Northeast Asia, his first trip abroad since assuming his post. Blinken was in Seoul from February 9-10 and will travel to Tokyo on February 12. The purpose of his visit, he announced on Twitter, was “advancing the rebalance” to Asia. Russel, meanwhile, traveled only to China; he’s in Beijing for talks from February 9-12.

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Both Beijing and Washington were vague on the specifics of these meetings, but the focus was on cooperation rather than airing differences. The U.S. State Department’s press release on Blinken’s trip, for example, said only that the deputy secretary would “meet with senior Chinese government officials to discuss ongoing cooperation on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues.” China’s official news release on Blinken’s meetings spoke of “significant and positive progress in China-U.S. relations in 2014.” “China expects both sides to keep up the pace this year and a successful visit by Xi will push forward the new type of major country relationship,” the release added.

In the past, preparations for a major bilateral summit (such as Xi’s visit to the U.S.) have meant concerted attempts by both sides to keep the relationship on an even keel. In October 2009, for example, Obama postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama, not wanting to rock the boat before his first presidential visit to China in November 2009. Then the relationship entered a rocky period in 2010 – but tensions were carefully smoothed over in preparation for then-President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States in January 2011.

We saw more U.S.-China tensions build from late 2011, when the “pivot to Asia” was rolled out, through 2012 and 2013 – so much so that many analysts began to worry that structural factors were causing a permanent change for the worse in the U.S.-China relationship. Even the “Sunnylands Summit” between Obama and Xi in June 2013 couldn’t turn the tide – perhaps precisely because it was designed as an informal meeting, without the expectation of solid progress that comes with formal state visits. It took new announcements on U.S.-China cooperation made during Obama’s visit to Beijing last year to right the ship.

Having two state visits in less than a year – Obama’s trip to China in November 2014 and Xi’s September visit to Washington – will help ensure that U.S.-China relations stay positive. As Russel put it in a recent press briefing on U.S. policy priorities in the Asia-Pacific, “We see 2015 as an important year [in U.S.-China relations], and making headway both on areas of cooperation and making headway on areas of concern, not limited to maritime disputes, are major objectives for the U.S.” The U.S. in particular is looking for breakthroughs on climate change negotiations and a BIT (“areas of cooperation”) and on cybersecurity issues and how to handle military contacts in China’s near seas (“areas of concern”).

What that means for the next seven months is that both Beijing and Washington will try to keep their very real differences private as they seek to craft at least one major agreement to showcase during Xi’s September visit. Having Xi’s visit announced so early puts the pressure on both sides to keep the relationship steady for over half a year – a herculean task, given that a number of possible irritants in the relationship are out of the control of both Beijing and Washington.

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