“Sunnylands is close to the Pacific Ocean, and China is just on the other side of the ocean.” These were Chinese President Xi Jinping’s words when President Barack Obama warmly greeted him at the Rancho Mirage in California on June 7, 2013. He said that he was meeting Obama “to map out a blueprint for the development of China-US relations and conduct cooperation across the Pacific Ocean.”

Xi asked Obama: “What kind of a relationship do we need? What type of cooperation should China and the United States have to achieve win-win results? How can both countries work together to promote peace and development in the world? These questions are major concerns not only of the two countries and two peoples, but also of the whole international community.”

Fast forward to the past week. It appears Xi’s questions remain unanswered – or if Beijing got an answer, it isn’t liking it. The Chinese leadership no longer seems to aim at achieving harmony as regards the ‘big picture’. The “new type of major-country relationship” remains work in progress and there is no timeline to reaching the objective.

Obama, Xi meet in Beijing in November 2014
Obama, Xi meet in Beijing in November 2014

Meanwhile, China is willing to settle for practical cooperation. To be sure, a sombre tone envelops the Sino-American discourse as Xi embarks on another visit to the US in September – a full-fledged state visit this time around.

The two meetings the US National Security Advisor Susan Rice had in Beijing in the weekend with the Chinese leadership underscores such an impression. Rice had come all the way to prepare the ground for Xi’s visit. Yet, there was no customary hype over Rice’s consultations.

In the US, there has even been demand from a right-wing Republican politician Scott Walker – and a presidential hopeful at that – urging President Barack Obama to call off Xi’s visit as a mark of displeasure over Chinese policies. Another presidential hopeful Marco Rubio was markedly personal in his condemnation of Xi, branding his human rights record as a “disgrace.” This level of savage attack on China is unprecedented.

While receiving Rice on Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed the hope for a “sustainable and steady growth” of relations and expressed the desire for “practical cooperation” while stressing the significance of “mutual trust, cooperation and communication” so that a relationship “featuring no-conflict and no-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” is attainable.

Xi said: “China and the United States should manage issues of difference through communication, sincerely respect and take care of each other’s core interests, and make efforts to expand common ground while reducing differences to maintain the big picture of stable development of the bilateral relationship.”

Earlier, State Councilor Yang Jiechi told Rice that both sides should respect and accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns, and expand cooperation at bilateral, regional and global levels with “positive interactions” in the Asia-Pacific.

To be sure, the tensions in the South China Sea, Japan’s growing assertiveness as a military power and the transformation of the US-Japan military alliance with a negative posturing toward China – apart from the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia which forms the backdrop – cast a shadow on Xi’s visit to the US. Significantly, Xi singled out “global issues such as Asia-Pacific affairs.”

On the eve of Rice’s arrival in Beijing, Chinese navy conducted a live fire drill in the East China Sea. According to Xinhua, the “exercise involved more than 100 warships, dozens of aircraft and several missile launch battalions. Nearly 100 missiles and several hundred shells and bombs were fired during the exercise.”

A commentary featured by People’s Daily on the eve of Rice’s arrival in Beijing asserted that China cannot accept the global order that is “shaped to the US liking” as it “jeopardized China’s legitimate interests.” It said the US’ “mentality of hegemony … seeks to shape an unfair global order in which it tends to monopolize benefits” and this adversely impacts stability and security. The commentary asserted that China and Russia “intend to improve the global order” without disrupting it and will “thwart” the US’ agenda of regime change.

Equally, an article last week in the National Interest magazine penned by the Chinese ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, in the run-up to Xi’s visit to the US was noticeably lacking in effusiveness. Sombre in tone, it urged the US to foster “good habits of cooperation,” which Cui explained in these lines – “never lose focus, stick to shared goals and interests, accommodate each other’s legitimate concerns, benefit from each other’s wisdom, overcome obstacles that hold us back – and most importantly – prevent our differences from dominating the agenda of the bilateral relationship.”

Assessing Rice’s weekend consultations in Beijing, the Global Times acknowledged that tensions have been building up in the relations and the root problem is that China’s rise is “causing a sense of crisis” in the US thinking, which manifests as China-bashing. Whereas China’s past attitude has been to ignore the “hawkish noises at critical times of China-US ties,” it has not yielded positive results and, therefore, Chinese authorities “could consider some systemic adjustment in order to enhance the effectiveness of their responses, and resources home and abroad need to be mobilized.”

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M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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