A New Type of Great Power Dialogue?

What should Barack Obama and Xi Jinping talk about at APEC?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are preparing for their most important series of meetings since the Sunnylands summit in June 2013 in California. They will meet at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leader’s Meeting, an important annual summit held this year in Beijing, as well as during the state visit Obama will make to China, from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12.

Experts discuss what Xi and Obama should talk about, and how the leaders of the world’s number one and number two economies can deepen their cooperation — and manage the strategic rivalry simmering between the two countries.

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies, Australian National University:

Before Obama meets Xi, he should ask himself two simple questions. What is his aim in developing America’s relations with China? And what is Xi’s aim? Until now Obama’s answers to these questions have been clear: to preserve the status quo of U.S. leadership in Asia. And he has assumed that Xi will accept this.

But Xi does not. Indeed U.S.-China relations have deteriorated sharply over the past few years precisely because Beijing has a very different vision of the two countries’ future relationship, and their respective roles in Asia. As Xi so often says, he wants a "new model of great power relations," which means he no longer accepts the old model represented by the status quo. He wants a new order in which China plays at least an equal leadership role with the United States, and perhaps more.

Until now Obama and his team have refused to take Xi’s ambitions seriously. They have assumed that China could be persuaded to step back from challenging U.S. leadership, if the United States plainly signaled that it was determined to resist any challenge. Obama’s "pivot to Asia," a cornerstone of his Asia policy, was intended to send that signal.

Unfortunately it is now clear that this hasn’t worked. China hasn’t backed off. Instead it has stepped up, by escalating confrontations at sea in the Western Pacific, launching new diplomatic initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and toughening its position on issues like cyber-security. Beijing has been trying to show Washington that it is at least as determined to change the regional order in Asia as the United States is to preserve it.

At Sunnylands, where Obama met Xi for a two-day bilateral summit in June 2013, Obama was still trying to pretend this wasn’t happening. He focused on a range of specific concerns, but assumed that these could be addressed within the old status quo. He therefore refused to engage with Xi about what a new model of relations might look like. Xi, for his part, refused to engage over Obama’s specific concerns until his wider questions about the shape of the future relationship were addressed. Hence their summit failed.

So now, as he prepares to meet Xi again, Obama has to consider whether to change tack. Should he start taking China’s challenge to U.S. leadership in Asia seriously? And if so, does it make sense for him to rethink U.S. aims? If sticking to his present aim of preserving the status quo will only lead to escalating rivalry with an increasingly formidable adversary, some change of approach might be worth considering.

That’s the message Obama should aim to convey to Xi when they meet. And Xi, for his part, should unambiguously commit China to accepting a continuing strong role for the United States, and respect for core norms of international conduct.

This is a lot to expect of the two men. But consider the alternative, and remember what’s at stake. Unless each is willing to take this kind of step towards the other, the most probable future between the United States and China is escalating strategic rivalry and increased risk of conflict.

Chen Weihua, Deputy Editor, China Daily USA 

Xi and Obama should talk frankly about a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues while working to manage their differences more effectively. They should not expect those differences to be resolved quickly.

The main question, however, is not what Xi and Obama say to each other, but how careful the two leaders and their senior officials should be when talking about bilateral relations in public. While Xi and Obama should be blunt with each other, the overall message from their dialogue should be a positive one, to demonstrate that they are working closely together on important issues. This means that their arguments over differences need to be kept private and not broadcast through a loudspeaker. Loudspeaker diplomacy in the past year has destroyed much of the good mood created at Sunnylands.

Since many of the differences will not disappear any time soon, China and the United States should focus more on expanding cooperation; when cooperation expands, it helps the two to manage and control their differences. On the other hand, when leaders are obsessed with disagreements, it weakens their ability to cooperate.

Tensions over maritime territorial disputes in East and South China Seas have been the most troublesome for the relationship over the past year. It requires great skills for the two nations to protect their own interests while listening to the other’s concerns. Behind-the-scenes diplomacy offers a more effective approach than broadcasting these differences in the public sphere.

Chinese leaders have recently been more careful with their criticism of the United States. But U.S. leaders, who exhibit care not to criticize U.S. allies publicly, often change tack when it comes to China, such as when Obama called China a "free-rider" on national TV on Aug. 8. The two leaders and their senior officials should learn how to talk about the relationship in public. They should avoid inflammatory language, and instead repeat positive messages about the overall relationship.

Wu Jianmin, former Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations:

Xi and Obama will touch upon a wide range of issues. In particular, they should talk about the following topics:

1. Xi and Obama should reaffirm their determination to build a new model of big power relationship, characterized by no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. This means that China and the United States will continue their cooperation and do whatever they can to avoid a Thucydides trap. Their consensus on the new model of big power relationship has created a good precedent: Never in history has there been such a consensus between an established power and a rising power.

2. There are two opposite approaches with regard to international relations. One is a collaborative approach, based on economic interdependence and the necessity for mankind to join hands to meet common challenges. The other is the confrontational approach, based on the zero-sum game mentality and on the need for interest groups to fan conflicts, confrontation and regional wars, because they can gain enormous benefits from the confrontation. Xi and Obama must stick to the collaborative approach.

3. Xi and Obama should jointly promote free trade agreements for growth and connectivity in the Asia Pacific region. This region remains the most dynamic and vibrant region in the world economy. Free trade, growth, and connectivity in the Asia Pacific will give a strong push to the economic development in the region, which will benefit the entire international community.

4. Xi and Obama should emphasize that the Ebola crisis poses a daunting challenge for the international community and requires a global response. The International community should join hands to express solidarity with African people in their fight against Ebola.

5. They should strengthen their cooperation to deal with hot spot issues such as terrorism, Afghanistan, and North Korea.

6. It’s natural that the United States and China should have differences on a series of issues, but the two leaders need to find ways to gain control of those differences and not let them stand in the way of cooperation.

7. The two leaders are expected to give instructions to their respective negotiating teams to speed up and conclude negotiations on the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) within next two years, further opening up the world’s two largest economies to investment opportunities. A U.S.-China BIT will contribute enormously to bilateral investment cooperation and bring this cooperation to a higher level for the benefit of both the Chinese and the American people. 

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