What Xi Wants

Watching the Shirt-Sleeves Summit From China

Today, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama are meeting at the Walter and Leonore Annenberg estate in California. Some have suggested that the timing and venue are odd -- for protocol reasons, it is Obama’s turn to travel to China for a formal state visit. (Xi came to the United States in 2012.) But it is a good thing that the leaders are apparently more interested in substance than formalities. Both are aware of the need to develop a new type of great-power relationship built on partnership. The question is how to translate that idea into reality. The easiest way is for them to roll up their sleeves and work on an issue-by-issue basis. The more problems Obama and Xi solve together, the more trustful their relationship will become. And that will help them move on to even bigger issue.

Among the more likely topics that will come up today are economic relations, North Korea, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, cyber security, military-to-military relations, climate change, and people-to-people contact. On economic relations, both countries have benefited a great deal from trade in the last decade. Now they have an interest in jointly addressing high-tech export policy, investment regulations, intellectual property protection, and government procurement policy, all of which are the topic of heated debate and could derail ties. For his part, Xi will likely be pushing for the liberalization of U.S. high-tech export policy and improved access for Chinese companies looking to invest in the United States. In return, Obama will probably want to push for better intellectual property protection and a more liberal government procurement policy in China.

North Korea will be another topic of discussion. Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons poses an increasing security threat to both countries. China has been reassessing its North Korea policy, so there is a good chance that the two countries will be in a better position to coordinate their approaches than they have been in the past. Xi will likely want Obama to be more patient with North Korea, whereas Obama will want Xi to put more pressure on it. Together, they will likely discuss how to use both carrots and sticks to encourage North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The two must also deal with maritime disputes in the South and East China Sea. China is concerned that the United States will side with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam in regional disputes and encourage them to provoke China. Meanwhile, the United States is worried about China challenging the principle of freedom of navigation in those parts of the ocean. Xi will probably seek Obama’s assurance that the United States will help restrain its allies and that it does not take sides on sovereign claims over these islands. In return, Obama will want assurance on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and that China will take necessary measures to avoid accidents in the island disputes.

In the talks, Xi will also likely want Obama to give his position on cybercrimes a fair hearing. U.S. newspapers regularly accuse Beijing of attacking the computer systems of U.S. companies. They neglect the fact that China is also a victim and is studying ways to address the problem. Both countries want a secure cyberspace and, indeed, have already announced plans to create a cyber working-group. Xi will probably propose developing a code of conduct for cyber activities, a proposal which Obama is unlikely to decline. 

Improving military-to-military relations between China and the United States is among the trickiest of the issues that Obama and Xi will discuss. Every time the bilateral relationship hits a rough spot, the natural inclination has been to call off military exchanges. But the militaries of both countries play a huge role in their respective nation’s foreign policies. So, better relations absolutely depend on the two militaries getting to know each other and developing some trust. To start the ball rolling, Xi and Obama may leave things vague, promising simply to take necessary measures to facilitate exchanges in the future.

Another difficult issue -- and one on which the meeting will likely not make any progress -- is climate change. Both countries are interested in protecting the climate and have made some progress toward doing so. But with Obama still dealing with the aftereffects of the economic crisis and Xi wary about the possible negative economic impact of doing too much to rein in pollution, the two leaders may exchange their views on the issue, but not go much further.

Finally, there will be one undeniable bright spot -- efforts to increase people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. China and the United States agree that encouraging cultural exchanges, student exchanges, and regular contact would be a good thing. In fact, both countries have already started to do so: the Obama administration developed an initiative to send one hundred thousand American students to study in China. China reciprocated with programs to support more Chinese students and scholars interested in visiting the United States, as well as American students interested in studying in China. The two countries have also maintained an annual China-U.S. High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange. These programs have received wide support in both countries. The two leaders may thus review the progress to date and redouble their commitments for the future.

There are many other things that Xi and Obama could talk about -- human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, and U.S. reconnaissance activities along China’s coast. However, in part because the purpose of the meeting is to set a positive tone for the future relations and in part because it is unrealistic to try to fix all problems at once, they will not likely feature prominently. Still, if the summit leaves each man with a positive feeling toward the other, and some progress is made on the bilateral relationship’s most important issues, it will be counted as a success. After all, the first step toward a more constructive and great power relationship is trust. And where trust exists, peace, stability, and prosperity could be soon to follow. 

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