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United States-China Presidential Summit, Washington 2011: Perceptions

Introductory Observations

Presidential Summits between the United States and China create a lot of hype and expectations run high and generated by the uneasy relationship that exists between these two major powers on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean littoral, both literally and figuratively.

Such have been the atmospherics attendant on the Presidential Summit which took place in Washington between President Obama of the United States and President Hu of China from January 18-21. 2011. This was evident in the run-up to the Presidential Summit and after the Summit the conclusions drawn differed based on respective perceptions of the United States and China.

The Chinese media played up the Hu visit to China as a ‘masterstroke’ of Chinese diplomacy whereas the United States appraisal was perceptively more realistic in terms of the “deliverables” that China yielded to the United States, which evidently were not heartening for Washington.

The Chinese President’s first and last visit to the Unite States raised high expectations taking place after the whole past year of 2010 having been dominated by tensions and confrontation generated by China bordering on brinkmanship. This was Hu’s first State visit as the earlier visit during President Bush’s tenure was accorded only an “Official Visit “status by the United States.

Media coverage of the Presidential Summit has amply covered the going-ons that took place in Washington and the agreements/understandings reached between the US President and the Chinese President.

This Paper does not focus on a journalistic reportage of the US-China Presidential Summit. This Paper offers the Author’s overall perceptions generated by the reportage available and are offered under the following heads:

  1. US-China Presidential Summit 2011: Differing Expectations and Perceptions of United States and China

  2. United States- China Strategic Relations: QUO VADIS?

  3. United States-China: Heightened Threat Perceptions Generate Strategic and Military Preparations for Contingencies

US-China Presidential Summit 2011: Differing Expectations and Perceptions of United States and China.

China did not invest much on the outcome of this Summit conscious of the fact that China had made US-China relations in 2010 quite prickly. China would have also noticed a certain stiffening of President Obama’s stances towards China after his visit to Beijing in 2009 which did not yield much result as the United States desired.

China therefore went through President Hu’s visit to Washington not with any ‘high expectations’ agenda. China looked upon this Summit in terms of ‘high symbolism’, politically and strategically, both domestically and internationally, that would be attendant on the first “State Visit” of the Chinese President to Washington in a decade.

In the decade past, in terms of perceptions fostered by the international community, China was a power with ‘superpower overtones’, a perception more generated by China’s stupendous growth. Its military modernization and up-gradation, though quite appreciable analytically, cannot be said to be capable of forcing the exit of the United States from the Asia Pacific.

The ‘high symbolism’ that China wished to play up perceptively was to create domestic and global perceptions that China indeed has emerged as a superpower, a perception that would be conveyed symbolically by the Chinese President standing in equal stature with the President of the mightiest nation on the globe on the White House lawns.

In other words, in terms of ‘high symbolism’ the Presidential Summit would help China to create the perception that China was now the ‘Strategic Co-Equal” of the United States in terms of stature.

The United States approach and expectations from this Summit did not rest on ‘high symbolism’ like China, but concentrated more on the political and strategic ‘deliverables’ that China could offer on issues of concern to the United States like the revaluation of the Chinese currency, South China Sea disputes and reining-in North Korean aggressive propensities against US Allies like Japan and South Korea. The United States was also aware that the Chinese President would be soon completing his tenure.

In terms of overall gains, China achieved its limited objective of ‘high symbolism’ leading the Chinese media to trumpet the Summit visit as ‘masterstroke’ of China’s diplomacy. The United States had no ‘deliverables’ in its lap from China. China refused to yield on United States core concerns and to soften its obduracy placed an order for 200 Boeing airliners. For the United States the Chinese President’s visit was a continuation of the ‘STATUS QUO” added with a warning by China that the United States should lay-off Taiwan and Tibet.

United States Strategic Relations: QUO VADIS?

The US President sought to embellish the success of the Summit rather bravely by terming it as an opportunity to reset US-China relations for the next 30 years. In US-China relations which are more strategic than political, 30 years perspective is a long long time.

In the United States Presidents normally change every four years and the US Congress exercises an oversight on US foreign policies, especially those on China. Under-pinning US strategic perspectives on its relations with China are the significant economic factor of US-China economic and trade relations. With China unyielding on the revaluation of its currency in response to United States persistent demands, frictions are bound to grow. This could alter US strategic perspectives on China.

QUO VADIS implies “Whither Goest Thou’? In the second decade of the 21st Century it becomes pertinent to ask this question as both the United States and China are at strategic crossroads globally and regionally and the rest of the world would like to decipher where the incipient strategic rivalry between these two major powers is headed to?

The ongoing big debate on this issue centers on the crucial issue as to whether China would accord pre-eminence to the United States to control the strategic space in the Asia Pacific or opt for strategic confrontation to achieve its nationalistic aspirations of emerging as the contending superpower against the United States?

The United States has vainly tried policies of constructive engagement with China in different forms. China misread them as manifestation of United States declining power and exploited the power vacuum in East Asia arising from US military distractions in Iraq and Afghanistan to its strategic advantage. The United States has belatedly recognized this development and now embarked on course corrections.

Existing indicators reinforced by the reality of China not ready or inclined for the ‘deliverables’ to the United States both economic and strategic, strongly indicate that United States and China are headed towards “Strategic Rivalry” in their relationship in which the main arena will be East Asia, South East Asia and South Asia.

United States-China: Heightened Threat Perceptions Generate Strategic and Military Preparations

The latest US-China Presidential Summit and all other political, strategic and economic interaction of diplomatic engagement between the United States and China cannot camouflage the main thread of “Strategic Rivalry” that runs through this relationship.

This “Strategic Rivalry” between China and the United States despite US efforts to put it in subdued contours by diplomatic rhetoric is bound to grow for two good reasons. Firstly, the United States will not allow any challenges to its global and regional predominance go strongly uncontested. The second reason hinges on China’s nationalistic aspirations to emerge as the contending Superpower with the United States.

More significantly, China in any visualization offers no “Strategic Utility” to the United States to merit any strategic compromises or accommodative stance by the United States.

Consequently, one is witnessing heightened threat perceptions in both the United States and China about each others motives and intentions. This has already in its wake generated noticeable strategic and military preparations.

China’s feverish military build-up and up-gradation to reduce its military asymmetry with the United States is well recorded and does not bear repetition. Its unchecked build-up of strategic assets is ongoing with no efforts by the international community to subject it to arms-control.

The United States is catching up militarily to cope with any threatening contingencies that China may like to impose in the future. Noticeable in this regard is the Southward shift of US military assets in the Pacific from their North East orientation to Guam in the South to enable the United States respond effectively to any Asian crises generated by China.

Also noticeable is the formulation of “Air-Sea War Doctrine” by the US Navy and US Air Force to offset China’s strategies not to let the United States move militarily close to China for a possible military intervention.

Strategically, China has lesser options than the United States in any strategic confrontation with the United States. At best it can only count on North Korea, Pakistan and Iran to act as China’s strategic pressure points against the United States.

The United States is advantageously placed in terms of its bilateral military alliances framework and a recasting effort by the United States to transform the bipolar structure to tripolar or even multipolar is underway.

Concluding Observations

The United States and China are destined for an extended Cold War in the Asia Pacific despite any diplomatic sophistry and embellishments they may attempt to convince the world that both are responsible stakeholders in global and regional security. The United States perhaps may be, but China’s propensity for aggressive brinkmanship rules out any regional trust being placed on it.

With any number of flashpoints existing in Asia, there are dangers that China’s aggressive brinkmanship in such flashpoints may trip the red-lines that the United States may have drawn.

The recently held United States-China Presidential Summit in January 2011 perceptively did not produce any optimistic indicators that China may like to downplay its propensity to generate prickly strategic flashpoints or soften its stands on the revaluation of its currency, a long outstanding tension between the two countries. Nor were available any indicators that both he United States and China had significantly attempted a ‘reset’ of their contested relationship.

The US-China Presidential Summit recently concluded in Washington only reaffirmed that ‘Strategic Rivalries’ between the United States and China were an inevitable reality of the coming decades and that Asian nations would need to recalibrate their policy formulations to this strategic reality.

(Courtesy: South asia Analysis Group.The writer, Dr Subhash Kapila, is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email:

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