Obama-Xi Summit: Assuage Respective Fears, Expand Cooperation

President Obama’s November 11-12 summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping comes at an opportune time.  With the Republican sweep of Congress, Obama will now have more leeway on foreign policy than on domestic issues and can devote more effort to the rebalance to Asia, even as he deals with growing terrorist threats emanating from the Middle East, an Ebola pandemic in Africa, and Russia’s expansion into Ukraine. The U.S. economic recovery is strong, with GDP growth rate expanding at or above 3.5 percent for four of the last five quarters, 49 consecutive months of job gains, the unemployment rate down to 5.8 percent, and a narrowing of the U.S. budget deficit to 2.5 percent to 3 percent annually.

The Asia-Pacific remains vitally important to U.S. national interests. The region includes many of the key engines of the global economy and provides a growing market for U.S. exports.  Preserving a balance of power and freedom of navigation within a dynamic regional security environment, upholding a rules based system, ensuring peaceful resolution of disputes, strengthening inclusive regional architecture, and creating higher standards for expanded trans-Pacific trade are rightly at the top of the Obama administration’s regional agenda.

Getting the U.S.-China relationship right is also essential. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech last week, “the U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential in the world today and it will do much to determine the shape of the 21st century.” Yet, U.S.-China relations have been increasingly strained in recent years as numerous problems have cropped up, but few have been resolved.

The ever-expanding list of American concerns includes China’s sudden announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone last year, its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, the use of cyber by China to steal trade secrets from American companies, internet censorship and China’s crackdown on dissent, and dangerous intercepts by Chinese fighter jets of U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance (SAR) aircraft operating in international airspace off China’s coast.  Beijing’s complaints include U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, emboldening nations that have territorial disputes with China to challenge Chinese sovereignty, close-in U.S. SAR flights, U.S.-Japan missile defense cooperation, and alleged U.S. interference in Hong Kong that Chinese leaders worry is aimed at destabilizing China.

Narrowing differences on these seemingly intractable issues will be made easier if the two presidents begin their conversation by focusing on the strategic imperatives of the bilateral relationship. Both leaders recognize the risks of military conflict that are inherent when an established power sees its position as challenged by a rising power. Averting a military confrontation is at the core of their consensus to build a “new model” of relations between the two nations. Xi Jinping’s insistence on including mutual respect for each other’s core interests and major concerns as part of this new model has undermined this consensus since U.S. interests in maintaining its alliances in Asia are in conflict with Chinese interests in asserting its sovereignty claims over disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. The two leaders should reaffirm the original, narrower basis of their consensus and pledge to carefully manage conflicts of interest.

Next, the two presidents should explain their vital national interests and respective grand strategies.  In doing so, they should directly address the other side’s concerns.  President Obama must seek to dispel Chinese fears that the United States is determined to contain China’s rise and undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. He should state clearly that supporting greater democracy in Hong Kong does not equate to promoting a color revolution that is designed to overthrow CCP rule. Embracing a bigger Chinese role in the rules-based post-World War II international system and the Asian regional order is more important than ever. While expressing concerns about the lack of transparency and governance standards in the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Obama should welcome China’s desire to provide lending for modernizing dilapidating infrastructure throughout the region. The U.S. president should reiterate that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an inclusive agreement aimed at advancing regional economic integration that China is welcome to join as long as it is willing to accept the high standards that are contained therein. While conveying the centrality of U.S. alliances to America’s security strategy, Obama should reassure China that these arrangements are not aimed at damaging Chinese security.

For his part, Xi Jinping must assuage American concerns that China is trying to drive the United States out of Asia and coerce its neighbors to accede to Chinese demands.  Xi’s assertion at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia earlier this year that “Asia’s problems ultimately must be resolved by Asians and Asia’s security ultimately must be protected by Asians” has heightened such worries in Washington. While defending Chinese interests, including on sovereignty issues, Xi should pledge to refrain from trampling on the interests of China’s neighbors, regardless of their size, and to resolve disputes without resorting to military force. Xi should take Obama’s concerns about cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property seriously and pledge to investigate ways to address them.

Reducing fears about each other’s intentions will not eliminate all the problems in U.S.-China relationship, but it can create the basis for controlling growing impulses toward strategic rivalry.  It can also pave the way for greater cooperation to address a raft of global challenges.  As Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2009, “Simply put, few global problems can be solved by the U.S. and China alone.  And few can be solved without the U.S. and China together.” Commitments should be made to work together more effectively to combat global warming, ensure stability in Afghanistan, fight Ebola in Africa, battle terrorist threats in the Middle East, and counter proliferation of weapons of weapons of mass destruction.  Concrete cooperation on some or all of these global problems can help to prevent the bilateral relationship from sliding in an adversarial direction and build a track record of collaboration in support of common objectives that would serve the interests of the American and Chinese peoples, and indeed, the rest of the world.

Bonnie S. Glaser is senior adviser for Asia at the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Bonnie S. Glaser