China and the United States of America have recently announced almost simultaneously the June 7-8 summit between President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama at the Annenberg estate at Rancho Mirage, California, which has caught worldwide attention. No doubt, the forthcoming summit will have extraordinary importance to China-US relationship and to world stability and development.
Looking around the world, China-US relationship has become the most important relationship in the international structure and its healthy growth is indispensable to ensuring global stability and development. Being the largest and the second largest economy in the world, the two countries have the responsibility and obligation to work for the world prosperity and stability. A healthy and sound China-US relationship itself is an extremely important public goods working for global economic growth and political stability. The relaxation of the entire world, to a large extent, hinges on the relations between China and the United States.
The timing of the summit tells it all. Internationally, the China-US bilateral relations have increasingly assumed greater importance in the new era. In China, the successful conclusion of the National People’s Congress and CPPCC sessions marks the smooth succession of the collective leadership of the new generation. On the other hand, the Obama Administration has been back on course after several major readjustments following the start of its second term at the beginning of this year. Clearly, the leadership of the two countries is, in a sense, each standing at a new starting point. Looking back, the US policy of returning to Asia has not been implemented without bias in the past few years. China has not enjoyed a smooth sailing in the implementation of its foreign policy either. There have existed a few issues in the relations between the two countries. At this new starting point, the leaders of the two countries need to communicate and discuss with each other on the future of the bilateral relations and of the world. The summit will afford them a great opportunity for that.
The biggest bright spot of the summit is its unique modality. Most of the time, either leader of the two countries would pay a state visit or working visit to the capital of the other for official talks, or occasionally they meet each other on the sidelines of multilateral meetings (APEC, the UN General Assembly and others). But generally, they seldom have opportunities to develop a personal relationship of some depth. And this summit will be the first ever informal meeting between top leaders of the two countries in the history of the bilateral relations. This in itself marks the maturity of the relationship. It also shows that it is no longer important to go through the formality. We may compare this to people-to-people relations in work and life. Naturally, it is necessary for people to have serious, business-like working relations with one another. But if people never go beyond business-like working relations, such a relationship would be nothing but politeness. Informal meetings and exchanges of views, on the other hand, entail mutual trust and confidence. The conduct of the proposed China-US summit represents confidence of the two countries in their relations.
Leaders of the two countries, full of confidence in the future of their relations, will meet for long hours in a relaxed atmosphere, which would afford them an opportunity to have an in-depth exchange of views on a wide range of issues, albeit informal, establish a sound working relationship and build on personal trust and confidence. Good personal relations between leaders will in turn contribute to a general stability in the bilateral relations and to greater strategic mutual trust and confidence.
China-US relations have come to a delicate stage, as theirs is a relationship between the No. 1 and No.2 or between the leader of the existing international order and the potential successor to the leadership of the order. History tells us that such a relationship has never been easy. The UK-Germany relationship before World War I and the US-Soviet Union relationship during the Cold War are just two examples in hand. Today, for the sake of their own interests and those of the world, China and the United States must properly handle their relations. Difficulties and problems are inevitable. But what is most important is to avoid the repeat of the historical tragedy, put in place a new-type model great power relationship and focus attention on cooperation between the two countries, which is the only correct choice for the two countries to make. To develop a new-type model great power relationship, China and the United States must first and foremost have strategic mutual trust. Mutual understanding and mutual trust between leaders of the two countries will undoubtedly play a positive role in this regard. Having said that, we look forward, with great expectations, to the summit between President Xi and President Obama at the Annenberg estate at Rancho Mirage, California.
In fact, there is, in China, a general inadequate understanding of the complexity of China-US relations, or relations between the No.1 and No.2, and of the delicate international position that China is in. Since China became the second largest economy with its GDP exceeding that of Japan in 2010, the international community, including the United States, has changed views and attitude toward China to a varying degree. Fundamentally, this explains why China’s diplomacy has frequently experienced challenges in recent years. Back in China, the academia and media have generally failed to put in perspective what the second largest GDP figure holds for China. Most people tend to underestimate the value of the GDP figure, for which there is nothing to blame, if only for the sake of domestic governance. They want to warn people against unrealistic optimism and remind them of the need to improve the governance and develop the economy in real earnest. However, the prevailing public opinions in favour of underestimating China’s strength have prevented us from fully understanding the reaction of the outside world to China becoming the second largest economy. To some extent, they have somehow contributed to a somewhat negative stance that China has taken in its foreign strategy. To steer China-US relations and improve the international environment in which China is, China should update and renew its international outlook and come up with a more realistic assessment of the outside world. What is crucial is that the academia and media in China should always give considerations to both the domestic and international situations.
Jin Canrong is Professor and Associate Dean at School of International Studies, Renmin University of China, People’s Republic of China.