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With Lack of Major Breakthroughs in U.S.-China Relations, the Small Things Matter

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
March 14, 2014
World Politics Review

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One year into Xi Jinping's presidency of China, it would be easy to despair about the current state of U.S.-China relations. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to push cooperation with Beijing on North Korea and climate change have fallen well short of Washington's ambitions. China's search for a "new relationship among major powers" has yet to materialize into something of real substance. And sparks are flying as the United States and its allies contend with a China that appears determined to enforce its claim to contested areas in the East and South China Seas in increasingly provocative and dangerous ways.

Domestic politics in both countries, moreover, offer little hope for significant improvement in the near term. Xi is emerging as a Chinese strongman—consolidating his personal power, cracking down on freedom of expression on the Internet, presiding over a significant expansion not only of China's military capabilities but also of its objectives and pushing forward on a bold—but as yet unrealized—economic reform package. While there is the potential over the mid to longer term for a stronger China to be a better partner for the United States, unless the economic reforms fulfill their promise, few of Xi's initial policy innovations will move the country in a direction that promotes greater cooperation.

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