When President Obama landed at Hangzhou airport for the G-20 Summit there was a snafu at the airport which led many in the US press to speculate that the Chinese authorities had deliberately snubbed him. But the President himself was quick of the mark by remarking that "I wouldn't over crank the significance of it". Quite so; for one has only to look at the whole range of the relationship to understand the depth, the extent and how closely the two countries are intertwined. Neither the US and certainly not the Chinese can afford a rupture over so petty a matter.
This being the last visit by President Obama to China before he retires from office in January 2017, it would be useful to take a careful look at where Sino-US relations stand at present.
Both the US and China are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Both are also members of several multi-lateral organizations. Therefore meetings at the apex level between the two leaders, besides frequent bilateral visits, are no longer a rare sight. In the first term of his presidency, Obama met his then-counterpart, Chinese President Hu Jintao about 12 times. A similar cycle and frequency of visits is maintained with the present Chinese President Xi Jinping. There is no doubt that the greater frequency of top level meetings is related in large part to the expanded opportunities that are available on the sidelines of multilateral meetings. These days it is clear that the frequency of meetings is also directly proportional to the importance of the relationship.
Besides these meetings at the apex level there is annual high level Strategic and Economic Dialogue [S&ED] that is normally conducted at the Secretary of State/State Councilor level. Seven such meetings have been held so far. In 2011 the two countries inaugurated a Strategic Security Dialogue [SSD] under the S&ED format that was to be co-chaired by the US Deputy Secretary of State and the Chinese Vice- Foreign Minister, and including the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and a Deputy Chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff. A first ever ‘informal round’ of the SSD was held in 2013. Other high-profile dialogues include the US-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange [CPE], established in 2010, and three dialogues established before President Obama took office: the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade [JCCT], the Ten-Year Framework on Energy and Environment Cooperation, and the Joint Committee on Environmental Cooperation. In 2011 the two countries set up the US-China Governor’s Forum that was intended to ‘deepen’ relations at the provincial level. A further initiative was to set up a Mayor’s Forum to examine the ‘best practices’ at the City Mayor/Party Secretary Level.[ii] Similar arrangements have been constituted at Cabinet level and there are 91 bilateral mechanisms where almost every issue affecting the two countries is discussed, besides international issues of mutual interest. There is even a group that even discusses South Asian issues pertaining to India and Pakistan.In 1979 the total Sino-US trade was only a paltry US$2 billion but by the year 2015, the total Sino-US trade had reached the astronomical figure of nearly US$600 billion. China has presently overtaken Canada to become the largest trading partner of the US. The trade deficit is huge; with the US amounting to US$ 386.5billion in favor of China. In recent years, nevertheless China has become one of the fastest-growing US export markets and the importance of this market is expected to grow even further, given the pace of China’s economic growth. As Chinese living standards continue to improve and a sizable middle class emerges, so will US-China trade grow exponentially. China is also the largest foreign state holding US Treasury Securities, estimated at US$3.1trillion.
In 2015 the number of Chinese students in the US reached a figure of 304,040, constituting 31.1% of the total number of foreign students in the US. In 2015 the number of Chinese tourists to the US reached a figure of 2.56million and was expected to go up to 2.97 million in 2016. Conversely the number of US tourists to China in 2015 reached a figure of 2.1million. The total number in 2016 both ways is expected to cross 5 million.[China Daily, 17 March 2016]
The Obama-Xi meeting touched upon co-operation in Afghanistan, cyber security, military relations, coast guard agreement, counter terrorism and a host of other global development issues. The US needs Chinese help in thwarting North Korean belligerence as well as over the Iran nuclear issue. But the key of how to handle the SCS dispute issue remains a thorn, with both sides trying to fathom each others future intentions. There is no doubt that with so much at stake, both sides would be anxious to find a modus vivendi. Both realize that confrontation is not the preferred option.
Thus as President Obama leaves office in a few months time the Sino-US relationship remains central and the most important one presently in the world. Future US Presidents cannot but take cognizance of this most essential fact in determining future policy. It would be wise for other Asian states also to take due note.