It's the world's most important relationship - and right now, it's beset by tensions over maritime security and cyber attacks. As the US and China hold their annual talks, DW spoke to a think tank expert in Washington.
DW: Let's start with the cloud that's hanging over these talks, the dispute over the islands China has been "building" in the South China Sea. It appears the Chinese are simply not going to give way. Is the United States powerless?
Bonnie Glaser: Well, the Chinese have already announced that they are essentially completing their island-building in the South China Sea, in the Spratly island chain in particular. And the US, I think, has shifted its concern to the actual deployment of weapons systems - potentially power-projection offensive weapon systems. This is an area where China says that other countries have deployed troops and some weapons systems. This is true. But the concern of the US is that there not be further militarization. If there can be an agreement among all of the claimants, there is a potential for some understanding. But it is also possible that China has a blueprint of capabilities that it wants to deploy in the South China Sea which might include the ability to patrol the airspace and sea-space, essentially 24/7. And if they do that, they may want to declare an air defense identification zone. That is something that I think the region and the United States do not want to see.
Let's look at this from the Chinese perspective for a moment. Many in China say that the Obama administration's policy of a "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region is in reality a policy of "containment." They see American warships in these waters as encroaching in their backyard. What's your response to that?
I think that the vast majority of countries in the region welcome the presence of the United States, view the US participation in the region, its involvement economically, politically, militarily, as stabilizing. The US has been a provider of peace and stability in the region for decades. The Chinese clearly do not want the US to be present in the region in a way that affects Chinese interests. But if China had good relations with its neighbors, if it was not threatening the neighborhood, if it was not coercing individual countries - making them nervous by building artificial islands in the South China Sea - then there wouldn't be this demand from the region for the US to be more present and involved. So I think that China has to modify its behavior and reassure its neighbors.
With both of these huge powers very active in the region, there's a risk of some sort of confrontation between them - either by accident or by design. How big is that risk at the moment?
There is the potential for an accident. But the US and China have been working on and made substantial progress on agreements that will protect operational safety at sea, that will prevent these kinds of collisions. There was one agreement that was signed last year at APEC [the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit] between the US and China that essentially applies to surface naval vessels. There's a second one that is likely to be rolled out when Xi Jinping visits the US in September, and that's on aircraft, to prevent collisions. So I think that this is a potential threat and danger that the US and China are quite aware of, and want to avoid. They don't want to have a war between the two of them.
Economically the two countries are now closely intertwined, and yet the United States is excluding China as it builds the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade zone.
I think that US-China economic interdependence is so far advanced that it's probably impossible to unwind. And that's probably a good thing. It may not prevent war at the end of the day, but it still is. But I don't agree that the TPP deliberately excludes China. Down the road, once this agreement is in place, it will be open for other nations to join. It will be up to China to decide whether or not this is something it wants to be part of.
And yet China's not been there at the beginning. Do you see echoes of what some see as a strategic mistake by the West after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, of not doing more to try to integrate Russia into the Western security architecture? Is the US risking a similar long-term mistake here?
Well so far we're only talking about modifications to the economic architecture. China is a member of the World Bank, the IMF, of course a sitting member of the UN Security Council with veto power. So this is not comparable, I think, to the way that Russia was treated in the early 1990s. But there is a risk of sending the message that the Western world wants to exclude China.
On cyber-security, there was an alleged attack on a major US government IT system just recently. The US has not come out and said China did this, but in background briefings officials are very clear which way they're pointing the finger. Why aren't they being more open about that? And is the US also taking aggressive actions in the cyber area against China?
I think both the United States and China are building up their cyber capabilities. The US has not revealed information about who conducted the hack of the Office of Personnel Management. If we are certain about attribution, then I do think the US has to find some way at least behind closed doors to share some of that information with China. The most likely actors are, I believe, in China - people who do have some ties to the government. Otherwise why would people want to steal all of this information on personnel?
There is also the issue of China's stealing of intellectual property - not just from American companies but from many other foreign companies. That is something that the United States does not do. And China has refused to accept that distinction. We don't have state-owned enterprises that conduct business in the same way that Chinese do.
So these are areas that are very contentious between the United States and China. Perhaps the US and China should not target each other's critical infrastructure. If we agreed to not map each other's critical infrastructure then that would be very important, because it would make it more difficult to target in a crisis.
So this is ripe for dialogue, for agreement, and not just between the US and China but between many nations that I think share the interest in maintaining stability, protecting their critical infrastructure, and protecting the intellectual property of their companies.
Is there a risk of a cyber arms race? Or are we already in one?
In terms of development of capabilities I think we are probably already in one. So the question is, are there some rules of the road that can be agreed upon that lower the risk that cyber capabilities would be used in wartime in very destabilizing ways - particularly the outset of war where they might not be able to be detected immediately.
On climate change, the two sides say they have a very positive story to tell. They struck an agreement last year to work together to reduce emissions and get a global climate deal in Paris this December. How serious do you think they are about this?
The Chinese leadership is quite concerned about the negative impact of climate change on the economy. So this has opened up space for US-China cooperation, where I think previously it had been very difficult. I think this is a positive story. But there are other issues between the US and China where there is progress, and people often lose sight that the US and China are working to prevent Iran from going nuclear along with the other members of the P5+1. They are working together on North Korea. And on Afghanistan, as the US begins to pull out its forces, the Chinese have become more worried about the potential for instability and how that can spill over. So there are areas where the US and China can work together.
Bonnie Glaser is Senior Adviser for Asia, Freeman Chair in China Studies and Senior Associate, Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, DC.