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Foreign Policy

U.S./China: The Most Important Bilateral Relationship in the World Today

Aug 21 , 2015

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Xi Jinping, the President of China. President Xi Jinping will visit the United States in September, partaking in a high stakes, scripted, state dinner with President Obama and other dignitaries at the White House. The Chinese leader will be in the neighborhood for the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.

Our U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. All major global issues intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C., and there is much for the two world leaders to discuss – conversations best done on a foundation of mutual respect, seeking win-win strategies that enhance world peace and economic growth.

A few topics worthy of time and effort include: climate change, Iran’s nuclear program, cyber-spying, the South China Sea, the Chinese economic bubble, an expanding Chinese military, Chinese currency policy, global terrorism, global economic growth, environmental protection, efforts to combat the Islamic State, the situation in Ukraine, China’s global reach in Africa, the Caribbean and South America—to name a few.

Perhaps even a mention about human rights and Tibet will be broached—just enough to appease America’s human rights activists. As China’s power has expanded, the U.S. has tipped-toed around these sensitive topics. Human rights activists claim that since President Xi came to power, China’s human rights record has worsened. China considers “human rights” an internal affair issue and rejects any outside interference.

This is President Xi’s first official State visit to Washington as China’s leader at a time when the Chinese economy is experiencing a ‘correction’ causing significant domestic anxiety. With China’s importance to the world’s economy, what happens in China no longer stays in China. Global economic markets fear any major setback to China’s gravy train.

Few expect major agreements or breakthroughs during the visit. Xi’s trip is expected to be a largely photo-op for domestic Chinese consumption, and will be used to strengthen connections in order to avoid conflicts. Many China watchers believe the visit is an attempt by both nations to take stock of their relationship and patch over any rough spots during Obama’s remaining time in office.

Yet there is some momentum in this fluid relationship. Last autumn, Obama and Xi struck a major climate deal to reduce carbon admissions which environmentalist heralded as an important step towards a larger global climate deal that could be reached before year’s end.

Hope For Major Breakthroughs


While there are many hurdles ahead, there is hope the two governments might break ground on military confidence agreements that were announced last November, especially agreeing on standards of behavior for unexpected encounters between U.S. and Chinese naval vessels and planes as tension continues to build in the South China Sea.

Even more ambitious would be a breakthrough on negotiating a bilateral investment treaty (BIT). U.S. negotiators and their Chinese counterparts are currently exchanging the all-important “exclusion lists” which critical industries are tapped to remain off-limits to foreign investors. This is crucial as China has trillions to invest around the globe and is seeking safe harbors for such investments. Experts believe progress toward an agreement on this treaty would be a major step forward in trade between our countries and a domestic boost for both presidents.

Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, is in China this month on his fifth trip in as many years. His focus on building bridges with China has paid dividends by creating jobs though Chinese investment in Michigan. We all have a stake in keeping that investment momentum moving forward.

Who Benefits-Xi? Obama? Or All Humanity?

President Obama clearly would like to have a major foreign policy win as his final term runs out even as President Xi, with seven years left in office, has time on his side. Obama will play the gracious host seeking agreements that can help shore up his foreign policy legacy as his lame duck status clock ticks. The Obama administration wants to showcase the progress they have made on strengthening U.S.-China relations at a time when the tectonic plates of power are shifting between our countries.

As the 21st century unfolds, the competition and cooperation with China on multiple levels will ebb and flow. However, we must reject the hawks’ view – from both sides of the Pacific – that confrontation is inevitable.

Since its opening to the world and normalization of relations has taken hold, our engagement with China has served America well. It has also served China well. The upcoming dialogue between our leaders will impact the citizens of America, China, and all humanity. Let’s hope they get it right.

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