Shadow Government

Five Questions for Obama Ahead of Xi Jinping’s Visit

What the United States plans to do when China supplants it as the world's leading economy is the most pressing question in American politics.


At last Wednesday’s debate, Hugh Hewitt suggested that the “biggest elephant in a room full of elephants” was Jeb’s last name. I respectfully disagree.

Commenting on my 2006 U.S. Senate race advertisement presaging the surge in Iraq, CNN’s John King observed, “Kennedy doesn’t ignore the elephant in the room; to the contrary, he looks it straight in the eye.” My view: The biggest elephant in the room being ignored was what America must do in order to continue as the world’s leader after a rising China’s economy eventually surpasses the size of America’s. And ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington on Thursday, this question becomes only more pressing.

If China supplants America as the world leader, many of the questions that consumed the debate will be trivial. America can and, in my mind, must continue to lead even if we eventually are no longer the largest economy. That will only happen if our leaders shine the light on and advance solutions to the many obstacles we face in assuring a peaceful coexistence with China.

Suggestions to not roll out the red carpet or pass on an official state visit with the only country with the potential to be our economic peer would make America look small. Rather than petty pandering, America needs to be astute in analyzing China’s actions, not reading ill will into every action, but acting with confidence and firm resolve when China does seek to undermine our interests.

In his book On China, Henry Kissinger observed, “Where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces … the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage.” We play chess. Kissinger highlights China’s “most enduring game is wei qi [that focuses on] strategic encirclement.” While Westerners wait for the whistle to sound the beginning of the contest, Easterners follow Sun Tzu’s precept that “the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting.”

Jake Tapper and most on the stage were apparently unconcerned about the possibility that China is accumulating elements of “relative advantage” as they debated. China’s “subtlety [and] indirection” is working. China was the debate’s biggest winner.

While Sen. Marco Rubio remarked that “the Chinese are rapidly expanding their military, they hack into our computers, they are building artificial islands in the South China Sea, the most important shipping lane in the world,” these topics went no further.

We need leaders who can peer over the horizon, see past the indirection, and call America’s attention to take action now to prevent being outmaneuvered. Here is a short list of the questions that Tapper ignored but hopefully will be considered by the President Barack Obama when Xi visits this week.

1. How should America read China declaring Sept. 3 a national holiday to celebrate the 70th anniversary of defeating Japan? Given that Japan is one of America’s closest allies with whom we just concluded a new security agreement in April, how should we consider the accompanying show of force? After all, America has no holiday to celebrate military victories.

2. As China included its Dong Feng (east wind) DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles in the holiday parade, should we reconsider our reliance on carriers? Should we seek to pivot to more dispersed naval power and accelerate our efforts to leverage drone capabilities? With all this talk by candidates about the appropriate number of Navy ships, what is the optimum mix of ships in our fleet?

3. How should America respond to China’s intention to build military facilities in the Spratly Islands? Are conservative internationalism measures to forestall any nation from taking disputed territory outside of negotiations warranted?

4. For centuries either the United Kingdom or the United States have been the sole guardians of the world’s sea-lanes, ensuring the smooth flow of commerce for all countries. With China’s new State Council White Paper commitment to a “blue water” Navy, its addition of a second carrier, its rescue operations in the Arabian Sea, its Navy’s foray within 12 nautical miles of the coast of Alaska, what precautions must we take to ensure unanticipated naval encounters don’t accidentally escalate?

5. Chinese hackers have obtained the files of not just 21 million Americans, but also those of political appointees whom China will most likely encounter in dialogues. The information obtained was not just biographical but intimate insights that would be helpful in gaining the upper hand in a negotiation. The Obama administration is seeking an arms control agreement limiting the use cyber weapons during peacetime. Would this be of any value? What measures should we implement to bolster our cyber defenses?

There was no discussion of how expanded trade could both bolster opportunities for American workers and our standing on the world stage. The populist positioning on immigration precluded a discussion about how closer economic ties with Mexico in a NAFTA 2.0 could strengthen the United States. Neither was there any mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These agreements would simultaneously strengthen America and provide further incentives for China to embrace the rules-based trading system that has underwritten our mutual economic vitality.

A debate at the Reagan Library should have shown more recognition of the fact that any leader claiming Reagan’s legacy needs to do more than say America should lead; they must clearly articulate how America will lead the world toward peace and prosperity. President Xi’s visit offers a second chance for charting a path for simultaneously being respectful of China’s rising role and faithful to Reagan’s maxim that “experience has taught us that preparedness deters aggression and that weakness invites it.”

Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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