For the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, our presidential election and a leadership transition in China are occurring within days of one another. This presents an historic opportunity to make the world safer and America healthier. President Obama and China’s soon-to-be president, Xi Jinping, a leader who has demonstrated a commitment to constructive U.S.-China relations, now have a chance to reset the relationship between the world’s most important nations.
Over the last three years our nation’s policy has drifted toward viewing China as a threat rather than an opportunity. We have “pivoted”, then “rebalanced,” against an imaginary enemy. In so doing, we have lost innumerable opportunities to partner with China in the economic and strategic sectors.
By focusing our policy on our alliances with others in Asia we have given ammunition to those in China who argue U.S. policy seeks to constrain China’s rise. Our policies – and just as importantly, our political rhetoric – should support reformers within China, including the new president, not give ammunition to those opposed to constructive relations and progress. For instance, though the United States ought to stand with Japan, our treaty ally, we should not stand by while it violates a forty-year understanding with China and asserts that no sovereignty dispute exists in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, a position few international lawyers find credible.
As a first step, the two governments should arrange a summit in China between the two presidents immediately after the National People’s Congress meeting in March. Unlike during his first visit in 2009, the Chinese government should allow President Obama to directly address the Chinese people, and he should assure them that the United States supports a prosperous China. The two presidents should hold a joint press conference which would set the right tone for the two new administrations and energize both governments to make progress on specific initiatives.
With partnership the focus, improvements in economic relations can abound. Our countries should immediately begin negotiations for a Bilateral Investment Treaty and a U.S.-China Free-Trade Agreement. The presidents should set a one-year deadline for conclusion of the Investment Treaty and a three-year deadline for the FTA. In the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, China should announce the creation of a $100 billion fund to invest in America’s infrastructure and help offset the cost of rebuilding the Eastern seaboard. On the West Coast, this fund could be used to invest in liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals to export LNG to China, a resource available in the U.S. at a fraction of the cost in China. In addition to creating American jobs and reducing our trade deficit with China, this project would reduce China’s imports of Iranian energy and thereby add muscle to U.S.-China cooperation on Iran policy. With increasing bilateral investment,the presidents should announce the creation of an investment ombudsman to facilitate investments in both the U.S. and China.
On the strategic side, the presidents should commit to increase military-to-military dialogues, joint search and rescue operations, and joint initiatives in the anti-piracy and anti-terrorism sectors. We should urge our allies in East Asia, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, to put aside their differences and pursue agreements with China to jointly develop disputed territories. China has settled virtually all of its land border issues with its neighbors on terms that the international community views as fair, and this precedent ought to extend to disputed maritime areas. Most importantly, we should acknowledge the remarkable progress made in cross-Strait relations and encourage both sides to reach a Peace Agreement which provides for Taiwan’s security.
When he speaks to the Chinese people, President Obama needs to remind them that America did not become the land of liberty and equal protection under the law by historical accident. He should say that we understand that all societies have different histories, different cultural values, and different solutions to their needs, but that we support a prosperous China based on the rule of law and that treats its people fairly. President Xi should focus on China’s progress in human rights in the last 33 years and acknowledge that China still has a ways to go. He might, in fact, use one of President Obama’s favorite quotes from Martin Luther King: “’The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’ and that is what will happen during my term as president of China.”
When President Obama took office, I urged him to go to China early and often. On the eve of his second term, I repeat that advice, believing that person-to-person exchange and feet-on-the-ground experience can be transformative. He now has an historic opportunity to make China a true partner with the United States and to redefine the most important bilateral relationship in the world in a way that will enhance peace and prosperity in the United States, China, and the world.
Stephen A. Orlins is the President of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.