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Firm Foundations for China-U.S. Relations
By Tim Collard | NO. 40-41 OCTOBER 6, 2016

The timing of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in September was somewhat tricky in the context of Sino-U.S. relations. After all, the end of Barack Obama's presidency is approaching, which means, firstly, that neither side can be entirely confident the relationship will remain unscathed by the forthcoming U.S. presidential election and, secondly, that President Obama is concerned about his legacy once he has stepped down.

Obama and his two experienced secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have shown a commitment to relaxing tensions in the Sino-U.S. relationship, looking for agreements and compromises where possible.

The most impressive example was the spectacular announcement, on the eve of the G20 Summit, that the two nations had ratified the Paris Climate Change Agreement of December 2015. Given that China and the United States are the world's two leading producers of greenhouse gases, together accounting for 39 percent of global emissions, this is a hugely significant agreement.

The Paris agreement can only come into force when at least 55 nations ratify it, providing they together represent 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That target has not yet been achieved, but the action of China and the United States is a vital step giving impetus to the process.

This is not just about a single environmental agreement. Its real significance is that highly developed and developing countries, necessarily asymmetrical, have managed to agree on cooperation in an area previously featuring fierce competition between established and developing markets, which naturally want to compete fairly.

Obama has broadcast the message that the United States is no longer behaving as a dominant partner, but is engaging with the leading nation in the developing world on a basis of absolute equality.

This is important. During a U.S. election campaign, candidates inevitably make nationalistic and sometimes protectionist noises in the scramble for votes. A degree of anti-Chinese sentiment always exists in the U.S. public sphere at such times, as fear of competition from a newly resurgent China tends to engender voters' fears over jobs.

As a responsible national leader, Obama is concerned that a firm basis for cooperation should be laid in relations with China that won't be easy for any future administration to undermine. Clearly, not every contentious issue can be resolved in the short term; but Obama is looking to the medium term, to the next administration, which will have to engage on equal terms with China just as he has done.

And, this is not just an aspiration. Presidents Xi Jinping and Obama have set out some practical measures for cooperation over the next few years that will be hard to ignore.

They have pledged their support for the establishment of global standards, set not by governments but by market mechanisms, aimed, for example, at ensuring carbon-neutral growth in international aviation from 2020 onward.

China expects to participate in this mechanism from 2021. The UN's aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, meets shortly to discuss this further.

One of President Obama's main aims for his visit to China was to convince regional states that his "pivot to Asia" was motivated not by a bid for U.S. hegemony, but by a desire to stabilize a largely economic relationship. He made a forceful case for ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), intended as the basis for trading relations across the Asia-Pacific region.

Here, the president is doing his best to establish the principle of free trade, hoping to ensure that the forces of protectionism raised by the current election campaign will not be able to take root. However, doubts remain whether, in the current state of U.S. politics, it will be possible to have an agreement such as TPP ratified by Congress.

Should the TPP negotiations fail, especially if this is matched by a failure in the negotiations with Europe over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Obama's foreign trade policy will suffer a severe reversal in the last months of his presidency.

Anyway, he has done his best. He has demonstrated the huge importance any U.S. president must place on maintaining both good relations with China and a solid trading system with East Asia as a whole. Obama's intention was to ensure a basis for solid cooperation with China that his successors will not readily wish to put at risk, and I think he has succeeded.

This article was first published by The author is a columnist with the website and a retired British diplomat

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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