Communitarian Approach? New China-U.S. Agreements

| April 2016
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Do the agreements reached at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping represent an evolution towards the communitarian vision of how international relations ought to be conducted, as well as finding a way to prevent a Cold War from China and the United States from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The communitarian approach represents an attempt to develop mechanisms for cooperation and coordination among states to tackle challenges that threaten the world as a whole and which cannot be resolved by unilateral state action–and, as the habits of cooperation in dealing with threats becomes more habituated, to encourage moral dialogues to tackle questions like human rights. At the Washington summit, both Xi and Obama, although acknowledging the major differences between the U.S. and China on a wide variety of security, trade, and rights issues, took the position that the nuclear and environmental threats to state survival should be the first priority–and that areas of disagreement can and should be ring-fenced from those areas where cooperation can make a difference to tackle first-order threats to the security and prosperity of both countries.

The language in their statements was quite revealing. Obama heralded the prospects of substantive cooperation, yet noted areas where the United States still has “deep concerns”, including over human rights and Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. Xi also pointed to China’s “disputes and disagreements” with the United States, but pledged to “seek active solutions through dialogue and consultation.” (On a separate note, Xi also explicitly called attention to a point that also lies at the heart of the communitarian approach to international affairs: the importance of avoiding “misunderstanding and misperception or escalation.”)

What was achieved in Washington, however, is only declarative at this point: an intent to sign the Paris climate change agreement and to work together to prevent nuclear terrorism and stem proliferation. President Obama may be unable to lock his preferences sufficiently into the U.S. policy process to ensure that they survive into the next administration, and President Xi may be less willing to translate rhetoric in Washington into action upon his return to Beijing. Much will depend on whether both countries really see climate change and nuclear terrorism as existential threats that take precedence over more concrete areas of dispute–cyberattacks, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and so on. Whether the Washington agreements mark the shift of U.S.-China relations towards shared management of global problems, or will only be a last-minute, election-year blip remains to be seen.

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