Why this China-US summit must succeed

The June 7-8 summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping could help define a grand narrative of cooperation that belies predictions of inevitable China-US conflict.

AP Photo
President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Xi Jinping of China shake hands in a Feb. 2012 meeting in the White House. The two presidents will meet June 7-8 in a summit at a southern California estate.

Many people have a co-worker who is friendly but clearly not a friend, who will trade a snack but not an idea, who is competitive but sometimes cooperates, who doesn’t quite know the exact nature of the relationship.

That’s how China and the United States have long felt about each other and why their two leaders will spend six hours together this Friday and Saturday at an isolated California country estate.

Before this cozy summit, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping had met only once and briefly. For nearly 20 years, Chinese and American leaders have met often in search of a grand strategy – a metanarrative or an overarching bond – that can help the two countries through the kind of bumpy incidents that have driven them into dangerous confrontations in the past.

President Obama says there is no more consequential relationship for America’s future than the US relationship with China. His former secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the relationship doesn’t quite fit into any black-and-white category. China is neither a Britain nor a North Korea but is something entirely new and different for the US.

The essential consensus between Beijing and Washington is to keep the relationship steady by constantly talking about the relationship, with hopes of creating a road map for their inevitable journey as giant powers growing closer. The key, as in getting out of a Chinese finger trap, is learning to relax. On June 7 and 8, the two presidents will try to do just that.

The uncertainty of not knowing where each country stands with the other has only fed into the anxieties of various domestic groups. Military leaders grow suspicious, warn of war, or demand better weapons. Business leaders cite unfair practices. Ardent nationalists see threats easily. Fears escalate in the absence of a defining warmth.

Ever since 1996, when the US sent two aircraft carriers to stop China from firing missiles near Taiwan, the two countries have decided to hold regular high-level talks simply to talk about the relationship itself. The risk of war has been too great not to put an emphasis on dialogue.

Up to that point, they had relied on a balance of power first envisioned by Henry Kissinger four decades ago. But as their individual interests have changed or expanded, so has the likelihood of clashes – whether over issues of cybersecurity, trade, military force, human rights, North Korea, and so on. Realpolitik, or merely making trade-offs in their respective interests, isn’t a guarantee of peace. They need to find a way to embrace shared values or achieve a fusion of goals.

Each new leader also has to decide how  to develop a trust with his counterpart. Obama had a chilly rapport with the previous Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, which did little to curb suspicions. Mr. Xi, however, is much more comfortable talking informally, raising hopes of a personal bond between them that might be useful during a bilateral crisis.

“He seems to be someone who is fast on his feet, who is open to engagement, who is willing to speak directly to Americans and to issues of concern to Americans in a manner that was not the hallmark of some of his predecessors,” a senior US official told reporters.

The two men have much to resolve. China seeks to be recognized as a rising power, one with historic grievances and a desire to reshape an international system set up largely by the US. The US wants China to be a responsible stakeholder in that global system, back off from threatening its neighbors, and accept the fact that the US is a resident power in Asia.

Their differences are stark. The US has 64 allies. China has none. One is a democracy based on rules, the other a one-party state that makes up rules to survive. One was shaped by Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment values, the other by Confucian and Marxist values as well as a defining ethnicity.

Obama and Xi must find the channel markers that will help the US and China navigate past unforeseen shoals. Shaping a strategy of cooperation will take humility, patience, and wisdom. The two men must focus on similarities more than differences. They must not act as if their two countries are fated to conflict.

The complex interdependence of the US and China cannot be seen as a chessboard in which there is only one winner. Obama and Xi can define a whole new game in which cooperation defines victory and conflict means both lose.

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