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Foreign Policy

Another U.S.-China Summit: An Opportunity to Be Grasped

Mar 27 , 2015

It is indeed very good news that President Xi Jinping will pay a state visit to Washington D.C. in September prior to attending the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in New York in October of this year.

The relationship between the United States and China is the most important one in world affairs, bilaterally and multilaterally. It is therefore vitally important that the two leaders regularly communicate. For example, they had a useful telephone conversation on February 11th. They also meet each other often at international events and always take time for private meetings. But the best type of communication and interaction is when the two leaders are able to spend multiple hours in detailed discussions with a minimum of aides present. This was the case at Sunnylands, California in 2013 and more recently in December 2014 at Yingtai in Zhongnanhai.  The autumn meeting in the United States will again offer such an important opportunity for deep discussions on bilateral, regional, and global issues— building on the momentum of the successful December summit.

It is no secret that there has been, and continues to be, considerable distrust between the United States and China—both at the governmental and societal levels. While this is not conducive to building a constructive and cooperative relationship, it is also quite understandable and predictable. It is unrealistic to expect U.S.-China relations to not include elements of distrust and competition, to some extent.  Competition between major powers is quite normal, especially when the two nations have such vastly different political systems.

At the same time, the two governments should find every opportunity to work together to address challenges in regional and global affairs. No problem in the Asia-Pacific or in global governance can be effectively addressed without a deeply engaged China and active cooperation between Beijing and Washington. China no longer has the luxury to sit on the sidelines while threats to global stability and humanity fester. However, China is still perceived as very ambivalent and reluctant to become engaged in many “hotspot” issues in world affairs. The current most pressing example concerns the very real threat of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq-Syria. China needs to more actively join the multinational fight against this barbaric threat to humanity—both because China has responsibility as a major power in the international community and, secondly, because China has a very real terrorism problem in Xinjiang that is directly connected to the situation in Iraq-Syria and the southern Russian Caucuses region.

It is thus very important that the two presidents continue to find areas of tangible cooperation in order to push the relationship forward. Slogans (口号) do not help in building the relationship, in the view of the American side. Americans prefer to actions to words. Therefore, the U.S. Government has been reluctant to, and has not, officially endorsed President Xi’s slogan of “building a new type of major country relations” (建设新兴大国关系). President Xi and the Chinese government would be better off coming to the United States in October prepared to discuss specific and substantive areas of cooperation—of which there are many—rather than trying to get agreement on this slogan.

In addition to discussing global governance issues, President Xi’s visit also offers an opportunity to push forward to conclusion a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), which will be of great benefit to both countries. The United States welcomes Chinese investment and it is already growing quickly. Deepening discussions on a range of security issues, including broadening bilateral military exchanges, should also be a priority.

But perhaps the most important subject and greatest opportunity is for the two leaders to share their perceptions of the strategic intentions of the other side. Many Chinese are (wrongly) convinced that the United States seeks to contain China and subvert the Chinese government — while many Americans are convinced that China seeks to push America out of Asia and dominate the region while challenging the American position worldwide. Both perceptions are wrong. But perceptions often have a way of becoming reality if they are not directly discussed and refuted. Presidents Xi and Obama would do well to spend some time on this subject when they sit down to talk in the White House.

All in all, the autumn summit between the two leaders offers many positive opportunities—which hopefully they will grasp, for the mutual benefit of our two great nations.

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