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Opinion: U.S. needs new policy on China as ties fester

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02:25 - Source: CNN
Why are the United States and China frenemies?

Story highlights

'Gradual accumulation of problem areas' has damaged U.S.-China relations

Cyber attacks and disputes over the South China Sea top the agenda

Obama, Xi talks won't achieve miracles but small steps are possible

Editor’s Note: Shannon Tiezzi is the managing editor at The Diplomat magazine. She specializes in China’s foreign policy and U.S.-China relations. The opinions expressed here are solely hers.

CNN —  

Friction in the U.S.-China relationship has built up to the point that U.S. analysts are convinced that business as usual is not an option.

The diagnosis that the relationship is at a “tipping point” seems to be common wisdom among China analysts. China’s power – and, perhaps more importantly, its confidence in that power – has grown to the point where the traditional U.S.-China policy is no longer adequate for managing the relationship.

The downward shift in U.S.-China relations may seem sudden, but in truth the cause is a gradual accumulation of problem areas.

Shannon Tiezzi is the managing editor at The Diplomat magazine.
Ben Hallissy
Shannon Tiezzi is the managing editor at The Diplomat magazine.

Take, for instance, the two issues at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda for Xi’s visit: Cyber attacks and the South China Sea. Neither is a new problem for the relationship, but both issues have festered for so long that they are close to a crisis point.

Combating cyber espionage

Cybersecurity has been a point for emphasis throughout Obama’s second term. In addition to a focus on shoring up public cyber defenses, Obama has repeatedly emphasized the harm done to U.S. businesses by cyber attacks and cyber espionage – an area where China has been a notable offender.

Back in 2012, General Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said such economic cyber espionage was causing the “greatest transfer of wealth in history.”

The debate about how to respond to China’s cyber espionage has been going on since at least 2011, as have efforts to engage China on creating “rules of the road” that define limits of acceptable cyber activities. But diplomatic efforts have been unsuccessful.

Obama planned to address these issues at his “shirtsleeves summit” with Xi in June 2013, but leaks detailing America’s own cyber espionage efforts effectively tied Obama’s hands on cyber issues. Then, in 2014, China withdrew from fledgling U.S.-China cybersecurity talks after the U.S. Department of Justice indicted five Chinese military officers on cyber espionage charges.

After three years, the two sides are still trying to get to the point where they agree to talk about cyber affairs – and in the meantime, the issue has gained prominence.

Tensions over South China Sea

Likewise, the South China Sea issue is not new, but has slowly built into a flashpoint.