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Early Harvest & Hiccups

By Zhang Ping, editor of “China-US Focus Digest”

In China’s view, relations with the U.S. were put on a steadier footing after President Xi Jinping’s meeting with President Donald Trump in Florida in April. The 100-day action plan, one of the outcomes from the summit, has reaped early harvests, dismantling fears of a trade war. Trump also sent one of his senior advisors to the “Belt & Road” international forum in Beijing, despite the lukewarm reception to the China-led initiative from the Obama administration. To prevent the situation on the Korean Peninsula from exploding, Beijing and Washington are working together more closely than ever.

Hiccups exist in the bilateral ties – the USS Dewey conducted a “routine” Freedom of Navigation patrol in the South China Sea in May, the first since Trump took office; China twice dispatched fighter jets to intercept U.S. planes along China’s shores during the month; the U.S. deployment of THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea, put on hold, still presents uncertainties.

There has been much talk in the news media and corridors of power and offices of think tanks in each country’s capitals, and among the public, about the prospect of a more assertive China filling the leadership void left by the U.S. Trump’s policy initiatives, including the U.S. withdrawal from TPP and his “America First”, as well of pulling out from the Paris Climate Accord, appear to point to a more isolationist America. Many seem to have also turned to China in the hope that it can step up to the plate to be the guardian of free trade and globalization and the chief cheerleader in climate change.

To some degree the hope and expectations are hyped. China has its eyes on the prize – that is growing its economy, managing a variety of domestic priorities, including an anti-poverty campaign and implementing the regional “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan that has a direct impact on the country’s economy. Its global role, while growing significantly, will be limited with its means, and aligned with its domestic priorities.

So far, there has been no indication that China is bucking its head against the U.S. in managing bilateral relations and global issues. Instead, China seems fine going along with the established rules within the existing global governance structure. Chinese initiatives, such as the “Belt &Road”, aim to improve upon the global system and bring about new opportunities. Our contributors Douglas Paal and Matt Ferchen suggest that China is largely a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker in many aspects of the international order.

For this issue, the highlighted commentaries are on the “Belt & Road” initiative. Chen Dongxiao, who chairs the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, participated in the May 13-14 “Belt & Road” international forum. He calls for better expectation management when it comes to implementing the initiative and a “collective identity” among the participating countries. Paul Sedille and Vasilis Trigkas suggest that the initiative can be viewed as part of an emerging “Sino-centric” “Silk Road system” very symbiotic to the U.S.-shaped Bretton Woods.

Another theme is the 100-day trade talks between China and the U.S. He Weiwen, while lauding the “early harvests”, lists high-tech, energy, steel and infrastructure financing as bankable opportunities beyond the 100-day action plan. Christopher McNally pinpoints the transactional approach to the talks that he believes will lead to an impasse.

This article was firstly published in the China-US Focus magazine “China-US Focus Digest” June 2017 issue VOL 14. Please click to read the full article.

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