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US-China pacts: a leap for universal values

In a surprise, China and the US sign four agreements – on climate, trade, military, and visas – that signal a breakthrough in embracing common values. For China, this is a huge change from not accepting the universality of values.

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    President Barack Obama follows President Xi Jinping as they enter a room at China's Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing Nov. 11.
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Who will shape global values in the 21st century?

One answer may lie in a set of extraordinary pacts signed by China and the United States at a summit this week in Beijing. These two giant nations, so often at odds over clashing interests, were able to find a common vision for curbing climate emissions, improving military conduct in the air and sky, opening more trade, and granting generous visas that would be valid for 10 years.

Each pact by itself marks specific progress, notably on the environment, peace, prosperity, and people exchanges. Taken together, however, they are based on common principles applicable to all.

They also put to the test China’s claim that there are no “universal values” but rather only the overlapping interests of countries based on their own culture and politics. Relations between nations, in China’s view, are determined by power distribution and order, not shared values.

Before the summit between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, American officials warned of difficulties in negotiating with China over common values. Mr. Xi prefers to promote the “China dream.” And lately he has promoted an “Asia-Pacific dream.” But never a “global dream.”

In a recently leaked internal document, China’s ruling Communist Party warned its official press not to mention universal values, such as democratic rights. Such values are associated with the West, especially the US, making them suspect. The content of universal values gets lost because of China’s security concerns over who is espousing them.

Instead, as one Chinese scholar, Wang Chengzhi of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, wrote: “The West-promoted ‘universal’ values will give way to diverse values in the long run since the emerging economies, such as Brazil, China and India, are on the rise.”

China’s concerns have garnered some sympathy among Western experts. In his latest book, “World Order,” Henry Kissinger writes, “The conviction that American principles are universal has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.”

Still, the West is currently confronted by three countries – Russia, China, and Iran – that claim values unique to their specific “civilization” or, in Iran’s case, an Islamic past that included a unified Muslim superstate, or caliphate. All three have also extended their militaries into other countries in recent years, such as Russia into Crimea.

Despite a world made closer by jets, media, and the Internet, warns José Manuel Barroso, the recent president of the European Commission, globalization “has not guaranteed the acceptance of universal values.”

China is still ruled by leaders who see the world in ideological conflict between competing economic systems. The Soviet Union was the same way – until Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s began to speak of accepting universal values. Then the Soviet empire, based on such conflict, began to crumble from within.

The concept of universal values rests on a notion of a common affinity between peoples, an inclusiveness that crosses borders, a shared understanding of what is good and true. So when the world’s most populous nation (China) and its wealthiest and most powerful (the US) join hands on four agreements of universal benefit, that concept takes a big leap forward.

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