Xi Visit: Little Impact on Sino-US Relations

Despite the apparent amity displayed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States last week, US-China relations are not undergoing any change that might really transform their rivalry into an “alliance” or that might lead to the conclusion that the two will no longer be competing with each other. That is not going to happen.

The aura of top class receptions and amicable pictures notwithstanding, the visit comes at a time when the US has already moved into an alliance with Japan to contain China in East Asia, and when US-China relations have entered the cybercrime, South China Sea, dissident crackdown, screwed-up stock market phase, etc.

It was hardly two months ago when China blocked the US’s attempt at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit to have all claimants agree to halt land reclamation, island militarization and the use of coercion in the South China Sea. As a prelude to Xi’s visit to the US, this diplomatic roast turned out to be a critical reminder of just how troubled relations actually are.

Addressing a regional meeting in Kuala Lumpur that was dominated by the South China Sea issue, Secretary of State John Kerry said that China's construction of facilities for "military purposes" on man-made islands was raising tensions and risked militarization by other claimant states. Kerry's blunt criticism of Beijing, in front of his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, appeared to be a deliberate attempt on his part to give fresh air to the issue just when Xi Jinping was preparing for his visit to the US. The issue, however, seems to have failed to make big headlines during Xi’s stay in the US.

Notwithstanding Kerry’s purposes behind his criticism of China, Chinese representative was quick to rebut him and criticize US meddling in strictly regional affairs. Wang Yi said, “To settle disputes through direct negotiation and consultation by countries directly concerned is what the UN Charter encourages and a common international practice.”

While many Asian countries want the US to serve as a check on China`s increasing power, they are far from eager for a confrontation that they would watch from the side-lines. The irony is that while they do share deep concerns over Chinese expansionism in the region, most of them now do more trade with China than with the US.

Both China and the United States have steadily increased their defense spending as both countries continue to form various alliances and counter-alliances in the region. For instance, recent changes in Japan’s constitution to make “collective self-defense” legal are an offshoot of larger developments taking place in the region. US China containment policy is keyed on Japan’s participation—hence preparations for facilitating Japan’s re-emergence as a “regional military power” or a “bulwark” against China.

Not only is the US bolstering Japan’s military power, Japan is also a crucial player in a number of grand projects including the Trans-Pacific Partnership the omnibus trade agreement that Barack Obama has made one of the cornerstones of his presidential career. The TPP is an ambitious agreement that the US is negotiating with 11 other countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam).

Ostensibly this is purely an economic partnership that would provide new market access for Made-in-America goods and services, strong and enforceable labor standards and environmental commitments, groundbreaking new rules on state-owned enterprises, a robust and balanced intellectual property rights framework, and a thriving digital economy. The trade rules of the TPP would cover almost 40 percent of the world economy.

Former US National Security adviser Tom Donilon went to the extent of calling the trade agreement the “centerpiece of our economic rebalancing” and a foundation for “regional economic integration” — after too many years of US foreign policy being bogged down in the Middle East.

The TPP has thus emerged as the linchpin of Obama’s strategic shift to Asia, giving the US a way to counter the economic inroads made in the region by a rising China. The deal is supposed to be followed by the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe, though those talks have much further to go.

Economic containment notwithstanding, competition for military preparedness is also an important aspect of US-China power tussle. Facts speak for themselves: From 2004 to 2013, the annual increase in China’s official defense budget averaged 9.4 percent. Gross figures of China’s military spending show an overall increase at a much faster rate than that of the other Asian countries. Hence, a 10 percent increase in China’s overall volume of military spending in Asia during 2010-2014, rising from 28 to 38 percent.

While questioning China’s right to increase its defense budget, the US itself has a huge defense budget, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of defense budgets of the remaining top nine military spending countries combined (including China). China’s defense budget in 2015 is less than one third of the US’s. Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2013 China’s share of defense spending as part of GDP ranged from 2.0 to 2.2 percent, and the US share fluctuated in the range of 3.6 to 4.7 percent. US defense spending continues at a high level, reaching in real terms its previous historical peak of the late 1980s, according to one report.

Although China will not be outspending the US for at least three more decades, the increasing rate of defense spending does indicate what China is prepared to do when it comes to projecting power in the region, especially with regard to the US’s Asia Pivot. That the pivot has serious Chinese connotations is quite obvious.

Robert Blackwill, for instance, a former US ambassador to India who could be a policymaker in any future Republican administration, wants the US to adopt a more confrontational posture. He sees China as a threat to the US’s economic interests as it amasses military might “capable of both defeating local adversaries and deterring the United States from coming to their defense in a crisis.” At stake, he argues, is the balance of power in Asia.

Rising defense spending is, however, not restricted to China and the US. Other regional states, including Japan and Philippines have steadily increased defense outlays too. For example, Philippines, one of five US allies in the region, has increased its overall defense sending from US$2 billion in 2009 to US$3.5 billion in 2013. According to the five-year program of modernization of the armed forces approved by President Benigno S. Aquino III in 2013, Manila plans to spend US$1.73 billion from 2013 to 2017 on the purchase of warships, helicopters and other types of weapons to strengthen its defense capability.

Japan, too, has been following China’s and other regional states’ footsteps. In 2013, Japan increased its defense budget by US$1.15billion or 0.8 percent in the Japanese defense budget for the first time in 11 years. Japan’s defense budget increased by 2.8 percent in 2014, and in 2015 it will be increased by a further 2 percent, reaching US$42 billion.

Given the extremely “militarized” nature of regional politics and US-PCR relations, it is less important to know how happy the leaders appear and how glamorous the first ladies look; for, the reality of US-China relations remains power-struggle for domination not only in Asia, but in Africa and Latin America too. Xi’s UN speech only reinforced this reality rather than deny it.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel