Is China Forging a New Global Order or Committing to the Old?

President Barack Obama’s meetings with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Beijing APEC summit early this week seemed to yield far more results than their diplomatic talks last year in California—the two leaders announced a “historic” joint pledge on carbon emission reduction, agreed to issue longer-termed travel visas to each other’s citizens, signed off on eliminating tariffs on tech products, and also agreed on terms to avert military confrontations in the air and sea. While some of these agreements have attracted a degree of criticism—notably the climate pledges for simply restating earlier climate goals, and the visa agreements for failing to address the issue of U.S. journalist’s visas—they have been lauded as proof that the two nations are willing to negotiate despite the tensions that define their relationship, and both leaders made this the centerpiece of their closing statements. Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elizabeth Economy writes that a more important implication of the Obama-Xi meetings has to do with geopolitical strategy, chalking the results of the summit as a win for Obama/the U.S. but noting Xi/China’s lasting determination to achieve a Chinese vision of global order:

Let’s be clear, the United States won big this week, but not for the reasons most people think. The media and China analysts have focused overwhelmingly on the climate deal, touting the new commitments from both the United States and China as exceptional, even “historic.” But this is missing the forest for the trees. The real win for U.S. President Barack Obama is keeping China in the tent or, in political science speak, reinforcing Beijing’s commitment to the liberal .

[…] Keeping China in the tent is no small achievement. Over the past two years, since he assumed power, President Xi has pursued a China vision of world order, evincing much more interest in flouting established rules of the road than in buttressing them. He has moved to enforce China’s maritime claims—recognized by no other party—in the East and South China Seas; proposed an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that could compete with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank; offered up a new regional security architecture in that would exclude the United States; and initiated an -Pacific–wide agreement that threatens to upend President Obama’s drive to complete the U.S.-backed trade agreement, the (TPP).

The APEC summit does not represent a strategic change for China but a tactical one. Xi is not stepping back from any of his own efforts to establish competing institutions; indeed, he underscored his plans during his joint press conference with President Obama. […] [Source]

An editorial from the South China Morning Post further outlines the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP)—China’s answer to the U.S.-backed TPPpresenting it as a win for Beijing in countering American dominance in the international order:

The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Beijing presented China, as host, with an opportunity to assert regional economic leadership. The outcome – endorsement by all 22 Apec economies to create a Chinese-led Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) – represented a diplomatic achievement for China in the face of American lobbying to downplay the idea.

[…] It is all part of an effort to counter the so-called US pivot towards Asia and expand China’s influence in keeping with its status as the world’s second-largest economy. The concerns of influential powers in the region like the US and Japan are understandable. But so is China’s regional assertiveness in the context of major power relations, not to mention the benefits to its economy of better access to markets. [Source]

China’s efforts towards constructing a “New Silk Road” tying itself closer to central Asian economies has also been described as Beijing’s answer to the TPP, while the Shanghai Cooperation Organization security alliance is seen by some as an effort to counterbalance NATO in the region.

A report from The Economist looks at the entirety of the APEC summit, what Beijing had hoped would be its “diplomatic coming-out party.” After outlining results of the summit that go beyond the U.S.-China deals mentioned above, the article draws attention to continuity in China’s international interactions:

It was all striking choreography. But what mattered, as world leaders headed to the next meeting, in Myanmar, is what had changed in China’s relations with the world. The magnanimity and wisdom on display count as welcome engagement. Some Western analysts see in it a desire for better relations, in particular with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, a recognition that recent bullying over maritime claims carries a cost for China by increasing regional distrust of it. Behind closed doors, some Chinese policymakers argue as much. Yet little suggests that, taken together, this week’s productive summitry heralds a big change in China’s dealings with the world. They are still coloured by suspicion, vitriol and good old Communist paranoia.

Last month, at a meeting tightening Communist Party control of the arts, Mr Xi endorsed a young Chinese blogger known for his anti-American bile. The state media’s shrill, cold-war warnings of a hostile West plotting to undo China appear to contradict Mr Xi’s call for a “new type of great power relationship”. And for all that Mr Xi says China and America should become an “anchor of world stability and propeller of world peace”, sharp differences emerged in his press conference with Mr Obama at the conclusion of their summit. The Chinese leader admonished a foreign press which has reported on how some of the country’s leaders and their families have enriched themselves. And he warned America not to meddle in Hong Kong, whose student demonstrations in favour of democracy he condemned as “illegal”, his strongest criticism of them to date. At times magnanimous, at times vituperative: China may continue to show both facets to the world for as long as it may not feel as confident about its strengths as it would wish to appear. [Source]

For more detailed post-APEC analysis of China’s place in the global order, see an article from The Economist on U.S.-China power jockeying in the Pacific and another on the overall importance of the Pacific in modern geopolitics; the Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini on how the different vocabularies used by U.S. and Chinese leaders directly reflect their differing opinions on the ideal framework of global order; Asia-Pacific security analyst Ely Ratner writing in the New York Times about the American opportunities opened by China’s rise; or Derek Scissors opining on the end of China’s economic rise at the National Interest.