When Barack Obama and Xi Jinping meet this week for an unusual two-day summit in Rancho Mirage, California, the two presidents will lay the ground for their joint stewardship of a bilateral relationship often described as the world’s most important. From the Chinese side, President Xi has signaled his aspiration for a lofty, if vague, strategic framework by calling for a “new type of relations” between great powers. China’s new leadership has yet to offer substance or elaboration on this concept, so we will see whether it takes hold as a guiding principle for policy.
In the meantime, a rough roadmap can be drawn—outlining potential paths for the relationship and the different levels of challenge that face the two presidents and their administrations. How ambitious and collaborative do they want to be? Do they aspire to buttress the international system for a fast-changing world, or would they be content simply to avoid deterioration and calamity?
While the latter goal is basically negative—focused on keeping bad things from happening—it has merit nonetheless. If the new type of great power relations is contrasted with earlier history, then averting war in a time of shifting power balance is no small thing. After all, the major European players of the 17th to 20th centuries failed repeatedly to manage their ups and downs peacefully. An armed clash involving 21st Century powers seems unlikely, yet there are certainly flashpoints such as the Taiwan Straits, the Korean Peninsula, and the region’s many unresolved maritime and land border disputes.
Still, the chance of war is remote enough that it isn’t the main task at hand or the main frame of reference for US-Chinese relations. In other words, more will be expected of President Obama and President Xi than simply preventing armed conflict. One reason for the high global stakes and the status of “world most important relationship” is the United States and China’s roles as pillars of the world economy. In the years ahead, China will become more central to the global political and security order; this is what it means to be a rising power.
The rest of the world, therefore, counts on the US and China to manage their differences, help keep the international system chugging along, and protect it from being disrupted—including any significant friction between the two of them, which could be inherently disruptive. (A similar point could be made regarding the #2 and #3 economic powers, China and Japan, currently engaged in disquieting brinksmanship over disputed islands.)
The world’s most important bilateral relationship is also the most intricate and delicate. As a framework for a wide-ranging agenda, the last two US administrations have relied on an extensive strategic dialogue process with myriad working groups of experts hashing out the issues. It was a good very sign last year when US and Chinese officials in Beijing patiently worked out arrangements for human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. Mr. Chen sought sanctuary in the US embassy shortly before a scheduled session of the strategic dialogue for which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was coming to Beijing, and neither side wanted the meeting to be derailed.
As that highly sensitive situation showed, both sides must always keep sight of the whole picture and their shared interest in a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship. The Obama administration also stressed this point in its effort to solidify the dialogue between the American and Chinese militaries. Rather than being conducted steadily and continuously, these military-to-military exchanges have sometimes been suspended by PLA leaders who preferred to convey their concerns by putting greater distance rather exchanging views across a table.
Let’s say that during their tenure Obama and Xi manage to avoid conflicts with the potential to escalate, defuse major sources of tension, and conduct themselves as model status quo powers. Would that earn them high marks as 21st Century statesmen?
If the international system itself was fully robust and not under threat, this would indeed be sufficient. Unfortunately, maintaining a healthy system will demand more of the world’s leading powers. The consequential international challenges of our era are all essentially collective action problems—for which the United States, China, and others will have to step up and do their parts. Whether it’s the global economy, nuclear proliferation, or climate change, the world will not be on a good trajectory without cooperative effort and leadership.
In the years since the 2008 global financial meltdown, Washington and Beijing have worked pretty well together to restore economic growth and financial stability. This is the kind of collaboration that is needed across all of these top-tier challenges. At times the two governments have synchronized their postures toward the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, but not enough to defuse the situations.
This third level would represent the new type of great power relations that is really needed: cooperative action to spread prosperity, stem the spread of nuclear weapons, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that could be catastrophic for the planet. Here’s hoping President Obama and President Xi begin laying the basis for such a relationship this week in California.
David Shorr is a program officer at the Stanley Foundation. He blogs at Democracy Arsenal and can be followed on Twitter @David_Shorr.