THE BLOG
11/18/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

Were Last Week's US-China Breakthroughs a Step Back?

China's surprise announcement of a commitment to manage its greenhouse gas emissions last week made headlines the world over. That it was made during Barack Obama's state visit, after months-long negotiations between the two nations, and alongside other meaningful advances on issues such as trade was celebrated as a cause for optimism about a fresh start for US-Chinese relations. That optimism, however, should not go without caution. Indeed, every bit of good news coming out of last week's landmark agreement carries with it reason to worry about the state of US-Chinese relations and the broader system of global governance.

Negotiated over a period of months by mid-level bureaucrats, the climate deal says much about the health of the bilateral relationship. For some long-time China watchers, Obama's visit to Beijing reinforced the absence of a point person on Chinese affairs with direct access to Obama and the ear of Beijing. Those who lament this absence as a way of longing for the return of a Kissingerian figure singularly entrusted with managing the relationship are misguided. No individual can or should dominate a bilateral relationship as significant as this. The Kissingerian paradigm is a historical artifact that even China is evolving away from as their international diplomacy grows in experience and confidence. The efforts taken by the Bush and Obama administrations to institutionalize relations through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue have been a step forward. The climate deal is arguably the first significant success of the institutionalization of ties it has promoted.

Yet, there is a reason to worry about the absence of a particular kind of point man. As the bilateral relationship becomes more institutionalized, it needs an official capable of coordinating the vast apparatus of the US government and uniquely able to advise the president on how to leverage it. This internal voice is inseparable from having a clear China policy. As the "pivot to Asia" has consistently produced more disappointment than progress, it is unclear in the final two years of the Obama administration whether there ever was a comprehensive China policy at all. Last week's agreement could be less the sign of a step forward through which breakthroughs in other spheres will follow than it is the beginning of the usual pattern of presidential legacy-building abroad.

The most important implication of this deal is its effect on global governance. Even prior to becoming president, Xi Jinping made much of a "new great power relationship." Like most political rhetoric anywhere, its exact contours are hard to read but seems inescapable from Chinese equivalent of a G2. The Obama administration, for its part, has studiously avoided acknowledging this as a viable construct for managing US-China affairs. Its actions in bringing the climate deal to light, however, contradict this.

The US may have seen this agreement as an attempt to "divide and conquer" the big developing powers who have held out on a climate deal. From this perspective, a deal with China may make one more likely with holdouts such as India, and thus make a global deal possible. While the deal may ultimately be good for the climate, it is potentially bad for global governance. Instead of requiring China to engage constructively in a multilateral context, the US has effectively let China's "great power relationship" come to pass. A G2 works to China's interests because it entrenches the expectation that the world's two dominant powers can act outside of the normal global system. When working to advance global interests, it is almost excusable; yet the true value for Beijing (and, regrettably, occasionally for Washington) is when this dynamic allows them to act contrary to it.

Even if the agreement struck last week with China were to make a global climate accord happen sooner than it otherwise would have, it is arguably a loss for the international community. Only if the international community is able to demonstrate its collective resolve on this and the ever growing list of transnational issues will global institutions earn China's respect. The US too needs the strength of an empowered international community: in a G2-context, China can obstruct progress on global issues on the basis of the ups-and-downs of its bilateral relationship with Washington, cycles that Beijing has shown it is more than adept at manipulating. In a G2 world, Washington would be forced to choose between its commitment to human rights and the threat of Beijing derailing vital global agreements as a sign of its displeasure. Only when China is expected to act as a power within the full the community of nations can the voice of the United States be its most resolute.

The US has the unique responsibility of ensuring China's successful integration into the global governance system. That at times may come into conflict with the more limited set of truly bilateral issues the US may have with China, either directly or in support of its allies. Part of this integration must come from Washington ceding some relative influence in global institutions like the IMF and World Bank and allowing them to evolve to meet a new era. On this count, Washington has fallen short for some time, leading China to launch parallel institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Integrating China into the global system must also come from a discipline to not engage China as a de facto G2. When Washington and Beijing act outside of the community of nations, it does not genuinely deepen China's commitment to the global system. Instead, it reinforces a world in which two powers may unilaterally set the global agenda - two powers that Beijing hopes and Washington fears will in time become one.