Mainland China and the United States may not be enemies, but neither are they truly friends. The U.S. remains a superpower in a unipolar world, while China has emerged as a potential challenger. The U.S. is still unprepared to see the world return to a bipolar system, and China remains fragile throughout. The U.S. harbors worries about its twilight; meanwhile, China's confidence is like the rising sun. It is stark contrasts such as these that put the U.S. ill at ease.
The old patterns haven't changed. China's hunger to become the world's largest economy is more than apparent, but its industry and technology remain suspended in a perpetual state of playing catch-up, and with rising wage levels, its economy will soon be faced with a painful transitional phase. Xi Jinping's government has been steadily shedding red tape but opening up very little new political space, giving people around the world pause as to whether China will ultimately be able to reach the lofty heights to which it aspires.
For a trip with all the airs of a coronation for Xi Jinping's foreign policy, the string accompaniment has been somewhat less than grand, and indeed has been a touch muted; one cannot help but feel that behind the host’s smiling eyes, there is also a great deal of weighing being done. Points of contention between the two nations are no fewer than in previous years, and the South China Sea dispute and competition over cyberspace have become issues that demand to be addressed.
However, there has been progress in other areas, such as the Obama-Xi meeting's extension of the pledge to reduce carbon emissions, set at the two leaders' nighttime consultation at Yingtai last year. On the question of Taiwan, Obama has reiterated the One China Policy based on the Taiwan Relations Act and Three Joint Communiqués, and Xi Jinping did not raise the subject during a press conference at the United Nations. This “same old” approach indicates that the dual powers of the United States and China will, at the very least, not forcibly make the probable outcome for next year's Taiwanese elections into an issue, and the currently favored Democratic Progressive Party candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, will be able to breathe a little easier.
Xi Jinping's visit to the United States is very likely an overture for the coming transformation in the global strategic landscape. It does not signal the beginning of the end for the U.S., nor does it even suggest its decline, but it is an unshakable truth that the U.S. must now share its crown with China. With this in mind, each time the U.S. refers to the One China Policy, it becomes abundantly clear that the future administration of Taiwan will be inescapably linked to that dynamic.
Chinese development cannot maintain its momentum forever, and indeed, bottlenecks are already apparent. However, its rising fortunes and power are beyond doubt and must inevitably challenge U.S. hegemony. The U.S. is still unsure of its posture toward China, but the feelings of disquiet and fear from its wax and wane may one day hit a “golden cross.” When that moment comes, the two nations, more than ever, will need to take a close look at each other's strategic guidelines and set rules for the new order, guiding the world step by step back into a bipolar system.