News analysis

View from US: Only modest, verbal commitments obtained

Having gone in with low expectations, Washington analysts said that the Obama administration will be satisfied with the modest commitments it did get from visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping in areas such as cyber security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

At the same time, however, they noted that since nearly all of it was verbal, the ultimate success of this bilateral visit will depend on what the follow-up is like in the months that follow.

At a joint press conference on Friday by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi, the two sides had said they agreed that neither would support the cybertheft of intellectual property for commercial gain.

 

Mr Xi had also said that China does not intend to pursue militarisation in the disputed Nansha/Spratly Islands where it has been carrying out reclamation.

Ms Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that, at the very least, the Obama administration got some "verbal commitments on issues that, going forward, they can try and hold the Chinese to".

"I wouldn't exaggerate this but we are getting some oral commitments and now we need to see where there's follow through. I don't expect to see a lot of follow through on a lot of these commitments, but the administration is going to have to try and hold their feet to the fire,"she said.

For instance, she said, if the United States provided evidence to the Chinese of cyber espionage and Beijing failed to act, then Washington should not hesitate to apply sanctions.

On the whole, many observers felt both sides seemed to approach the visit with the aim of not setting ties back any further rather than trying to make significant progress.

Dr Patrick Cronin, senior adviser at the Centre for a New American Security, said that the two leaders thought it "more important to conceal serious differences than to risk the perception of an intensifying rivalry".

"In reality, they mostly codified existing relations, which are largely cooperative. The cybertheft for commercial profit issue has not yet been advanced so much as kicked down into a protracted working group," he said.

But there were others who worried that, despite the best efforts to put up a united front, the tension in ties still shone through.

"I think the visit showed how much strain has developed in the relationship," said Mr Timothy Heath, senior international defence research analyst at the Rand Corporation. "The Obama administration has seen China dismiss its criticisms about the South China Sea and cyber espionage, among other issues, and this has soured the mood. I expect US policy towards China to take a harder turn."

As for what signals the meeting between the two leaders might send about the state of the administration's so-called pivot to Asia, he said that, if anything, the apparent neglect of the pivot might change given the competitive nature of ties with China.

"I think the deteriorating Sino-US relationship will add impetus to the argument for a larger investment in the rebalance," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'View from US: Only modest, verbal commitments obtained '. Print Edition | Subscribe