Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Reading the Beijing summit

A series of summits in Asia recently give us clues as to an emerging new international order that sees China, not the US, at the fore, writes Gamil Matar

Al-Ahram Weekly

Within the space of a week, two major summits were held in Beijing: the APEC summit and the bilateral summit between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Another two were held in Myanmar: the ASEAN 2014 summit and the 9th East Asia Summit. Lastly, the G20 summit was held in Brisbane, Australia. It would be no exaggeration to say that of these five, the Beijing bilateral summit was by far the most significant in form, preparations, essence and potential effect on international political life. To put it very simply, this summit made an important contribution to the efforts that have been exerted for at least two decades to build a new international order.
These efforts, the most recent being the negotiations that prepared for the bilateral Beijing summit, seek to achieve two basic aims that officials in both countries would be hard put to state openly or acknowledge. The first is to reach a mutual understanding on the question of the division of spoils and distributions of international responsibilities between the two poles of the international order under construction. The second is to set standards for assessing the levels of the “real strength” and international influence of each of the two sides striving to share the leadership of that new international order. There is nothing new about these two aims in international relations. In every phase that preceded the transformation from one international order to another, the parties poised to lead the new order would struggle to arrive at as realistic as possible answers to such questions, so as to be able to lay down the necessary rules for managing the international order, to assess the size of potential responsibilities and burdens, and to designate the rights accrued from possessing a level of power and influence superior to that of all the other parties put together.

It was exciting to watch the movements of the two sides — the Chinese and the Americans — in the days and hours that preceded the summit. It was an open secret that officials in both countries had prepared for months and perhaps years for negotiations preparatory for this summit in particular, so that their respective presidents could conclude agreements and obligations, some explicit and firm, others implicit and broadly outlined. In their negotiations, the two sides would naturally be expected to haggle on the basis of calculations shaped by current circumstances at the time. But the negotiators from both countries would not have factored in the possibility of events or developments that would alter, even in relative terms, the weight of the two sides.

My first reaction upon first hearing the news of the demonstrations of the youth in Hong Kong about two months ago was to wonder how those demonstrations would affect the negotiators in Washington and Beijing who were preparing for this summit. I believe that those demonstrations tangibly weakened the position of the Chinese negotiators with respect to their US counterparts. Nevertheless, Washington at the time was clearly determined to avert the risk of China calling off the talks if Washington and the US media took aggressive stances on Beijing’s actions towards the protestors. The Americans did not even give a hint of the schadenfreude they exhibited during the Russian opposition’s demonstrations against the nomination of Vladimir Putin.

In like manner, what first occurred to me when I heard the results of the midterm congressional elections in the US was to wonder whether the Republican victory and the exposure of the decline in the popularity of Obama and his administration would complicate the task of the US diplomats negotiating with China and testing the Chinese pulse on issues related to the forthcoming partnership at the global helm, beginning with the APEC leadership.

Just as the demonstrations in Hong Kong harmed the position of the Chinese Communist Party and the ruling regime in Beijing, so too did the results of the US elections harm the position of the US administration and Obama personally. The results were announced while US diplomats were preparing for negotiations in a critical phase in the course of the evolution of international relations in general and in the relationship-building process of two states that were planning to share world leadership. These developments may explain some facets of the behaviour of the two countries during Obama’s visit and during the two summits, the bilateral one and the APEC summit. What is certain is that in the end the bilateral summit did not result in the signing of any essential agreements or treaties of direct bearing on the future of international peace and security or on the future of peace and security in the Asian continent or on current international alliances. The two leaders signed bilateral agreements, one having to do with their commitment to contribute to solving the problem of global warming, another having to do with facilitating visa requirements for the other country’s citizens.

I contemplated the headings of those agreements, and the attended exchanges of speeches and statements for a long time. I found nothing approaching the information leaked several months ago about the negotiating strategies of the two sides. That information left us to understand, at the time, that the US was hoping that its negotiations would compel China to explicitly define, for the first time, what it regards as its essential interests.

The Americans want China to come right out and say that its essential interests are, for example, the return of Taiwan or the peace and security of Xinjiang province or the continued assimilation of Tibet into the Chinese nation and culture, or Chinese military and economic hegemony over the South China Sea, or control over the strategic rocky islands in the East China Sea, or all of these items together, or all of these items together and more. What the Americans want is for China to set such interests on top of the Chinese negotiating “agendas”. But China, which has always been reluctant to discuss its strategic priorities, was even more stubbornly reluctant this time. Perhaps Obama’s weakness, whether because he is “lame duck” president or because of the Democrats’ loss of their majority in both houses of Congress, has something to do with the US negotiators’ failure to persuade China that it should make its national and essential interests clear.

On the other hand, the Chinese wanted to obtain US acknowledgement that Asia is big enough for two great powers and to secure a US commitment to changing its leadership style so as to be more open to dealing with the “emergent pole” in accordance with the principles of reciprocity and mutual respect. It was clear during the rounds that preceded the strategic negotiations between the two countries that the US would not easily concede to that condition. It might recognise a greater role for China in the region and rights commensurate with its growing economic, commercial and military capacities. But it would not dismay a number of Southeast Asian countries by abandoning them to Chinese hegemony.
At the same time, I imagine that the Hong Kong demonstrations and their echoes throughout the region were instrumental in strengthening the hand of the US negotiators. It was noteworthy that, during his stay in China, Obama did not address Asian public opinion on his commitment to supporting the countries of Asia. It was said that he had postponed that speech until after that visit. And, indeed, he delivered it from Brisbane on the eve of the G20 summit. It was also said that China was determined not to allow him to address university youth or Chinese public opinion directly during the bilateral and APEC summits.

From observing the performance of the US and Chinese poles during the past year, one notes a disparity in their strategic perspectives on the Sino-US negotiating process. It is natural that the US aim from these negotiations would be to convince, or force, China to recognise that the US has hegemonic rights over the region inherited from the Western colonialist era. The US has the support of Europe — including Germany — in this. It would be naïve to imagine that the US negotiator has not factored in to his equations that China, and indeed the whole of Asia, realises that the US is no longer the sole uncontested pole of the international order.
As for the Chinese negotiator, he would naturally be keen to accelerate the process of persuading the US that the future of their bilateral relations and the international order will be determined by Sino-US negotiations proceeding from an American recognition of the existence of a conflict that began some time ago between a rising superpower and a declining one.

The conflict has assumed the form of a contest to expand their respective realms of regional influence in Asia. While the US works to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with the Pacific Rim nations, but excluding China, the latter is promoting an Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA) and has pledged to the countries of the region to present the final draft of its project within two years. China is perfectly aware that American efforts are doomed to fail because of China’s growing volume of trade with other countries in the region. Otherwise put, China is confident that the economically declining superpower will be unable to exclude China from a regional bloc that is increasingly dependent on Chinese trade.

China is presenting its project to leaders in Asia beneath the heading, “The Chinese dream for the Asia-Pacific region.” In essence, it is about founding a “world bank” for economic development to stand as the first model of the ability of the non-Western world to forge a new global economic system. Another heading for it is “Two Silk Roads”. One is the road of development, joint projects and trade flowing via Central Asia. The other is a similar road but flowing through South Asia to Africa and then northwards to Europe. Ultimately both roads lead to Venice. Both symbolise the vast horizons, enormous expanses and huge power that Chinese empires knew before the arrival of Western colonialism.

The G20 summit in Brisbane marked an end to the series of international summits that fell within a single week. After reading the press releases and statements of the participants at the Brisbane summit, and the observations of commentators, I can confidently say that Europe has implicitly recognised that the race in Asia happened and that China has come out ahead. All that remains is for the West to settle its scores with Russia, the new rebel against Western hegemony and the strong supporter of China (so far at least) in its race against the US and its efforts to build a new world order — one in which the West will be a mere partner.

The writer is director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Studies.

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