In the absence of a common narrative shared by the U.S. and China, the two nations are likely to drift more rapidly apart. The relationship needs a new strategic concept for the future that is capable of sufficiently embracing both American and Chinese realities, as well as areas of potential common endeavor for the future, and to do so in language which is comprehensible and meaningful in both capitals. Trust builds on itself just as distrust builds on itself as well, compounding into deep enmity over time.
The leadership in Beijing does not share skepticism about the human role in climate change beloved of some important constituencies in the U.S., Australia and the EU. It has been able to unify decision makers within the vast bureaucratic machine domestically. This is at least one area where the top-down, centralized structures of the People's Republic prove helpful in significantly redirecting policy.
The president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, became the second of two close American allies (after Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) to shake hands with President Xi Jinping of China this week. Xi and Aquino shared promises to constructively manage tensions in the South China Sea, a promising step forward after several years of maritime incursions into territory both countries claim as their own.
In Beijing on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama called on China to be a "partner in underwriting the international order" instead of "undermining" it. One key American strategist, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is strongly promoting the idea that Obama's notion should be pushed further and formalized into a "Pacific Charter."
Now that Xi and Abe have had their icy handshake, China and Japan need to move forward. Hotlines are necessary, but so is continued leadership: for President Xi, to ensure that anti-Japanese nationalism does not dictate policy towards Tokyo; for Prime Minister Abe, to tamp down tendencies towards historical revisionism.
Simmering tensions between China and Japan and in the South China Sea combined with the American "pivot" to Asia have been used by some to produce a narrative that China is a destabilizing force for the region and the world. Many have accused China of being a free rider and troublemaker. Nothing can be further from the truth. On the contrary, China has been a linchpin for stability and development in this important region.
It is not apparent that policymakers in either the U.S. or China yet seem persuaded that accommodation is necessary. Both seem to underestimate the resolve of the other and hope that they can secure all they want because the other will back down to avoid confrontation. This is how Asia today most resembles Europe in 1914.
In the end, Ernst concludes, both the U.S. and China have a strong interest in finding a compromise during the APEC Summit. From the U.S. perspective, a mini ITA-2 without China would be an oxymoron. Not only is China the world biggest smart-phone market, it is also by far the most important market for U.S. semiconductor firms.