Xi Jinping’s state visit is in America’s essential national interest. Although there is a range of views about how President Obama should handle the visit, there is virtually no disagreement that US-PRC relations are critical across virtually the entire spectrum of human activity and that, while some things are going well, in other areas the relationship is quite troubled.
The leaders will talk about everything from cyber-security to national security, trade and investment to climate change, Taiwan and global health to human rights. And although they will each have to register their views on certain issues lest anyone mistakenly believe they don’t matter, presumably most of the detailed work has already been done. But the most vexing issues will be front and center in the summit discussions including cyber and potentially dangerous territorial and maritime disputes in East Asia. National Security Advisor Susan Rice made plain in her George Washington University speech this week that both topics involve vital American national interests and will shape U.S. policy toward China in fundamental ways.
Overlaying these talks are three broad issues worth noting: the nature of the relationship, the quality of relations between the leaders, and the level of understanding regarding each other’s basic goals and concerns.
New model of major power relations
At their first extended meeting in California in 2013, Presidents Obama and Xi agreed to adopt “new model of major power relations” between China and the United States. The basic goals were to avoid conflict and confrontation, accord each other mutual respect, and work for win-win outcomes.
China complains that since then the White House has shied away from re-endorsing the concept. The fact is that U.S. hasn’t dropped it, but Americans are by nature uncomfortable with bumper-sticker slogans to describe complex relationships. Moreover, even at that first set of meetings, Xi made clear that what China wanted was not simply “mutual respect” in the sense of Americans respecting China’s achievements and its culture and history. What it wanted was for each side to respect the other’s social system and development path as well as its “core interests and major concerns,” and to make common progress through seeking common points while reserving differences. In light of the deep differences over many important issues, this was not feasible for the United States. Rather, for the U.S., the focus was on on how to avoid the so-called “Thucydides trap” of conflict between a rising power and an established power. Moreover, while they clearly did want to deepen and broaden relations, Americans looked to build a new type of relationship through pragmatic dealings and cooperation, not adherence to slogans.
But there is another dimension of the relationship that goes beyond the tugging and hauling over these definitions. No one questions China’s extremely important and growing role in every dimension of international activity. While the United States and China cannot simply solve the huge problems facing them and the world-any notion of a “G-2” is a chimera, there are very few major problems in the world that can be solved or even managed successfully without Washington and Beijing operating along the same track.
Yet, as National Security Advisor Rice noted, “… success isn’t winning at all costs or getting ahead at the expense of others. In this century, success is measured by the partners you draw together through principled leadership.” In other words, leadership must be based on a view of the world that sees accounting for the interests of others not just as a necessary inconvenience, but as an intrinsic part of one’s own interests.
From its rhetoric and its behavior, China aspires to a regional and even global leadership role. But to do so China needs to be willing to take responsibility, among other things, for making the international system function well. As Rice pointed out, from the beginning of U.S.-China normalization of relations in the early 1970s, having China play an active and responsible role on the world stage has not only been something that the United States accepted but something the U.S. sought.
In their talks, Presidents Obama and Xi need to reinforce these realities, not simply the words.
As then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said following the June 2013 meeting, the United States had as a “specific goal” to “build a personal relationship” between Presidents Obama and Xi and to “really sit down and explore the contours of the U.S.-China relationship.” The Chinese briefer, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, said the two heads of state had “enhanced mutual understanding and trust.”
In hindsight, while those meetings as well as those last November in Beijing produced some important results, Donilon’s careful wording regarding the ambition of building personal relations seems closer to the mark than Yang’s assertion of their having done so. No one should have expected a transformation over eight hours – or perhaps eighty hours – of conversations, however intense. But it does not seem they really broke through.
Still, it is worth continuing to strive for greater familiarity, if for no other reason than that it helps each leader understand more clearly what lies behind the other leader’s policies. An important part of that, of course, has to do with a clear perception of goals and concerns (discussed below). But another important part is to have an instinctive sense of what might be in the other person’s mind based on an understanding of where he’s coming from and how he conceives of the relationship.
The vision thing
Susan Rice spoke about how she spent many hours in China recently discussing the two nations’ priorities, their expectations of one another, and their visions for the future – where they overlap and how they will handle disagreements. It was important to tee up these topics, because they are among the most important issues on the presidential agenda. But it is the leaders themselves who must have that conversation, without filters, to be able to explain and probe on these critical issues in a way that no one else can do for them.
And it is really only in the context of such mutual understanding, both at a personal and a policy level, that the extremely difficult issues that will be discussed while Xi is in Washington can be successfully addressed.
One can understand how some people viewing the many serious issues the U.S. confronts with China may want to respond with “action,” even retaliation. But unless the two presidents can rise to the level of leadership that takes account of the realities and legitimate interests of both the other side and of other nations, as well, and unless they can establish a level of insight about each other and about what is likely to succeed or fail in light of the vision that each leader has, they cannot successfully manage – much less resolve – issues that are essential to the well-being and security not only of their own people but of the world.