Originally Published 2013-06-13 00:00:00 Published on Jun 13, 2013
At the Obama- Xi talks, there has been some movement forward on the so-far intractable issue of Hydroflurocarbon (HFCs) emissions. Washington and Beijing have agreed to work together to eliminate the use of HFCs and persuade countries like India to join this effort. This could mean trouble for the tenuous alliance of BASIC.
Obama-Xi talks: Trouble for BASIC?
American President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent meeting in the US was path-breaking in many ways. Though not a formal summit, this was the first meeting between the two leaders after Xi took over as President and Obama was re-elected. The idea behind the talks, clearly, was to build a personal rapport between the leaders of the two most powerful countries of the world.

The meeting came at a time when relations between the declining superpower and the emerging superpower are fractious over many issues, though they are inextricably tied to each other economically.

More importantly, this was the first meeting a Chinese leader has had with an American President without the trappings of a formal visit and with extended discussions over two days. The meeting was an opportunity for Obama and Xi to set the agenda for the future of US-China relations and to clear the air on issues that trouble the relationship.

Obama and Xi discussed a whole range of issues during the talks. There has been some movement forward on the so-far intractable issue of Hydroflurocarbon (HFCs) emissions. In what is a significant victory for President Obama, Beijing and Washington have agreed to work together to eliminate the use of HFCs and persuade countries like India to join this effort. This could mean trouble for the tenuous alliance of BASIC that Brazil, South Africa, India and China built at the Copenhagen and Durban.

Beijing and Washington have also agreed to work together to put pressure on North Korea to rein in its nuclear weapons programme. In addition, they have also agreed to have regular military-to-military talks.

Cyber-security has emerged at the forefront of irritants in the US-China relationship. As the US National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, has said, "It is now at the center of the relationship; it is not an adjunct issue" and "key to the future" of the relationship. The US has apparently told China that continued cyber-theft of intellectual property would prevent economic relations between the two countries from reaching their potential. China's response was that China is also a victim of cyber-attacks. However, China has agreed with the US, Russia and other countries that international law is applicable to actions that states take in cyberspace -a significant step considering that China was earlier reluctant to accept this.

The Chinese also tried to get the US to acknowledge its interests in its neighbourhood, saying the "vast Pacific Ocean" is big enough to accommodate both powers. But, apparently, without any tangible success.

So, has the summit lived up to its hype? Both sides seem to be happy with the talks, with Obama describing it as "terrific" and Yang Jiechi, President Xi's chief foreign policy adviser, describing it as a "success". The two leaders have developed a kind of personal relationship, have had "candid and constructive" conversations and are looking to accommodate each other's concerns.

They have agreed to cooperate on some new issues like climate change. However, some contentious issues like the South China Seas and the US rebalance to Asia do not seem to have been discussed or if they were, there seems to be no progress. Human rights were discussed, but with no breakthrough.

While the meeting has set the standard for bilateral interactions for the future by building a personal rapport between the two leaders, it will take much longer for the two countries to overcome their strategic distrust. This is an attempt to set the rules of the game to a negotiated process towards a G-2 (advocated by experts like Zbigniew Brzezinski) or a "new model of great power relationship" advocated by Chinese scholars.

As President Xi specified, "China and the United States must find a new path -one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past". President Obama echoed him, saying the US and China "can forge a new model of co-operation between countries based on mutual interest and mutual respect." China clearly wants a relationship of equals, something the US is not accustomed to dealing with. Therefore, this will be a difficult and protracted process. In apparent recognition of the need to keep the dialogue going, Beijing and Washington announced that a second summit will be held soon in China.

The rest of the world will be watching with wariness and interest this new tango between China and the US. It could revive fears in India, Russia, Japan and many other Asian countries of the G-2, first suggested by Obama during his maiden visit to China as President.

If China can virtually abandon the BASIC coalition, which withstood pressure from the West effectively in order to protect its own interests, it is quite possible that China and the US might accommodate each other on more vexed issues.

If Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences and manage the transition of power peacefully, that could only be good news for the world, which does not want to see a hostile relationship developing between the two countries. If Beijing and Washington can develop a cooperative relationship, it would add to economic development and stability in the world. However, as pointed out earlier, many countries would be wary of this new relationship. China and the US would do well to keep this in mind as they take their relationship forward.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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