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Foreign Policy

The Xi-Obama Summit – What Comes Next in U.S.-China Relations

Jan 05 , 2015

On the evening of November 11, 2014 in Beijing, just after the 21-nation APEC meetings, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted U.S. President Barack Obama at an “informal” dinner and tea-drinking inside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound. A formal state visit by President Obama brought the two leaders together for much of the following day. The two presidents then announced a wide range of bilateral agreements covering climate change, visa facilitation measures, as well as military to military relations.

The throng of pundits who had prognosticated about the Xi-Obama meetings had not foreseen Sino-American agreement on so many issues. The positive outcomes of the summit seemed to call into question the widely assumed wisdom that U.S.-China relations were locked into a widening downward spiral. To some observers, the agreements reached in Beijing recalled the optimism emanating from the “Sunnylands Summit” in California in the summer of 2013.

In the lead-up to the Beijing meetings, we wrote in the New York Times that in light of the growing mutual distrust in both countries, the two presidents should seize the opportunity of the summit to reassure each other about their nations’ respective strategic intentions, and work together to ease the suspicions that each side harbored toward the other. We were gratified that Xi and Obama seemed to have done just that in Beijing.

What the November agreements suggest is that the two leaders are able to communicate effectively on complex problems, negotiate in good faith, and reach mature understandings that serve the interests of both countries. Now, the question is, can that pattern be maintained in 2015 and beyond? The disenchantments that crept onto the stage after Sunnylands offer grounds for concern, but we believe that the chances of continued positive momentum are good nevertheless. To maintain forward movement in the relationship, both presidents and their foreign policy teams will have to provide continuing assurance to each other, concentrate whenever possible on positive messages, and, as always, carefully manage their differences even as they expand areas of practical cooperation wherever possible.

That means, first of all, that the November agreements must be implemented energetically and fully, both in the short and in the longer term.

The climate agreement is the most cosmic, with the longest-term implications. The agreement is unprecedented; for the first time, China has committed to capping its CO2 emissions by a date certain. The Beijing agreement, widely welcomed in the international community, should lay a foundation for the crucial 2015 Paris conference on climate change. China and the U.S., as the world’s two largest emitters, have begun to show that they can address their unique leadership responsibilities, promoting global emission reductions and battling global warming.

In the joint understanding regarding the WTO’s “Information Technology Agreement,” China and the U.S. finally broke a lengthy and frustrating impasse, opening the way to broader international agreement on the elimination of tariffs on a huge list of globally traded high technology items. Once again, though, the U.S. and China must continue to work with the global trade community to ensure that a final agreement is reached quickly. Roughly $1 trillion worth of trans-border trade is on the line. In a vast trading relationship inevitably characterized by frequent frictions, this agreement is a healthy reminder that economic engagement is likely to remain the ballast of the U.S.-China relationship.

Presidents Xi and Obama made positive noises in Beijing about the desirability of a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), which could bring enormous economic opportunities and benefits for both countries and indeed will greatly shape the trajectory of U.S.-China economic relations. Looking ahead, the two presidents, having reaffirmed their commitment during their summit, should energize their BIT negotiators, even if U.S. Congressional approval of a solid BIT will ultimately demand a dedicated effort by the White House and Congressional leadership.

Meanwhile, the two presidents agreed to facilitate the reconciliation and reconstruction process in Afghanistan. Going forward, the U.S. and China, along with other stakeholders, should present a joint vision for a secure and stable Afghanistan, and lay out the parameters for a peace-building process that will see more substantive China-U.S. collaboration, as well as effective regional cooperation in achieving such a shared goal.

The two presidents have committed to join hands in the battles against the global terrorist threats. Now, the two presidents should direct their respective governments to embark on discussions about cooperation at both strategic and policy levels, including possible cooperation on intelligence sharing and legal cooperation, and on concerted efforts to assist the fight against the global terrorist threat through the United Nations (U.N.) as well as other multilateral frameworks.

On North Korea, the two presidents have reaffirmed their commitment to denuclearization. Now China and the U.S. should intensify their discussions, bilaterally and with other key stakeholders including Seoul and Tokyo, aiming to present Pyongyang with a unified and consistent international position and to seek a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear challenge.

In terms of military to military relations, the summit produced two memoranda of understanding (MOU)–one on the notification of major military activities and another on rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters. Here again, operationalizing these commitments, which entail complex technical and training challenges for both forces, will be the best “confidence-building measure” to come out of the Xi-Obama exchange, and will contribute to the promotion of what Chinese President Xi calls a “new model of military relationship”.

Overall, the Xi-Obama summit in Beijing has helped stabilize the China-U.S. bilateral relations and brought back positive momentum in bilateral relations. Opportunities for further progress abound, but success is not guaranteed. For each country, these commitments will require significant adjustments and policy changes, which can only be brought about through domestic political processes. For both nations, this will be where domestic economic and political factors collide with the conduct of foreign policy.

In the U.S., incoming Congressional leaders, for example, immediately made clear their opposition to the climate agreement, questioning China’s credibility in keeping its promises and warning of potential job losses. Such instant condemnation of the Xi-Obama agreement on climate change is not helpful in assuring not only China but the world at large of America’s ability to carry through on the Beijing agreement.

In China, meanwhile, the commitment to cap CO2 emissions, reduce overall coal use, and raise to twenty percent the share of overall energy production from sources other than fossil fuels, raises significant challenges for Chinese leaders. Arguably, the current anti-corruption campaign, part of which targets the vast powers accumulated by interest groups in the coal and oil sectors, will help facilitate China’s fulfillment of its new climate change commitment.

To sum up, by building on and sustaining the productive ties they announced in Beijing, the two presidents will have a good chance to build a new model of major country relationship and indeed lay the foundation for a deeper, mature, cooperative, and robust U.S.-China relationship in the decades to come. What Mr. Xi Jinping and Mr. Barack Obama rolled out in Beijing, to the surprise of many observers, is an indication of how they and their administrations can – and should – continue to work together in the future.

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