November 10, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: U.S.-China Relations: A Pivot to Pragmatism?

• Regional issues will dominate President Obama’s trip to China this week, but two broader matters will likely feature as well: climate change and international terrorism

• The U.S. and China account for about 42% of all global carbon dioxide emissions; so far they have played the ‘spoilers’ in international negotiations on climate change, but together they could shape agreements

• China faces a threat from domestic terrorists with links to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region and increasingly Iraq and Syria, both areas where the U.S. is particularly active; shared objectives could lead to greater cooperation, including negotiations with Iran

• President Obama’s trip has the potential for pragmatism to triumph over politics.


While President Obama’s current trip to China, Myanmar and Australia may revitalize his pivot to Asia, it is hard to determine foreign policy objectives based solely on geography; events elsewhere tend to get in the way. Subjects for discussion in China will no doubt include major regional issues such as trade, but two non-regional issues will likely feature as well: climate change and terrorism.

China and the United States are the world’s two largest producers of carbon dioxide, with China contributing 10 billion tons per annum by 2013 figures or 28% of all global emissions, and the U.S. about half of that, making a combined total of over 40% and dwarfing the third worst polluter, India, which produces about 7%. Although efforts have been made in both countries to reduce environmental pollution, national demands for energy have made China and the U.S. the obstacles when it has come to reaching international agreements on climate change. But both countries recognize the pressing need to check global warming and that in order for any agreement to have a lasting effect, they must reach an accord in concert with the rest of the global community. If the two biggest polluters find a way forward, it is likely that the rest of the world will follow.

Another shared problem that defies national boundaries is terrorism. China has seen a growing number of domestic terrorist attacks this year, and has become increasingly concerned that violent extremist groups like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement are recruiting and training Chinese nationals—almost all Uighurs from Xinjiang Province in Eastern China—from bases in the Afghan/Pakistan border area. Heightening China’s concerns, there are now believed to be some 300 Uighurs fighting in Iraq and Syria with the so-called Islamic State. While the numbers are small when compared to the Chinese population as a whole, the potential for these extremists to damage national security should they return to China is very real. The United States, with about 130 nationals or residents fighting in Iraq and Syria, and a few others with al-Qaeda in the Afghan/Pakistan border area, is in a very similar position.

On the surface, it may seem that while the two countries might have a common problem, they have little to discuss in terms of a common solution. But as the United States completes its withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan and continues to face problems in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan, China, a neighbor to both countries and a particularly close ally of Pakistan, will have a keen interest in meeting the objectives of America’s longest war in promoting regional stability and fighting violent extremism. It is unlikely to be long, for example, before Chinese drones are attacking targets that until now have been the preserve of U.S. agencies.

In Iraq too, the coincidence of interest may lead to some burden sharing and mutual political support. China and the U.S. are the world’s biggest importers of oil as well as the world’s largest polluters, with China overtaking the U.S. at the end of last year as U.S. domestic production increased. China’s huge energy deal with Russia in October was far more to do with natural gas than oil, and China remains dependent on Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq for well over one third of its crude oil imports. If regional instability in the Middle East cuts the flow, other traditional suppliers, like Angola, Libya, and South Sudan, are unlikely to be able to make up the loss. So militant Uighurs and a constant thirst for oil will make Chinese leaders interested in the success of the U.S.-led coalition against The Islamic State, and in its efforts to calm the sectarian competition that underlies so much of the problems facing the region.

Both sides will see the pragmatic advantages of working together, and there is little doubt that President Xi would applaud President Obama’s effort to make Iran part of the solution by leading the P5+1, which of course includes China, towards a nuclear deal and finding ways to work with Iran against the threat posed by The Islamic State. China could also help by persuading Saudi Arabia and Iran that they risk more by competing than by working together, and allay Saudi concerns that any improvement in the relationship between the United States and Iran has to be at its expense.

If President Obama’s trip to China finds common ground on both long-term and short-term transnational issues, such as global warming and terrorism, this will signal a strategic agreement between the world’s two most powerful countries to address problems of mutual concern, in a triumph of pragmatism over politics.


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