Over June 7 and 8, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with his U.S. counterpart President Barack Obama at the Annenberg Estate at Rancho Mirage, California, in what was the first face-to-face encounter between the two leaders since China’s change of government.
The summit attracted particular attention for two reasons. First, the nature of the meeting: no salutes, no banquets, no cumbersome protocol…indeed, no neckties. On the surface, at least, it was more like a gathering of friends, with a relaxed atmosphere yet deeper exchange.
The second factor is the sheer importance of Sino-U.S. relations to the world. China is the planet’s largest developing country and the leading representative of the emerging world. The U.S. is the largest developed country and the principal force behind the creation and maintenance of the current world order. To a considerable extent, their relationship will set the direction of world affairs for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps even more importantly, the summit will have unusual symbolic significance for the two countries themselves. Commentators and analysts in both countries view bilateral relations at a critical crossroads: there are some major opportunities to move forward, but also some significant constraints.
Whither the China-U.S. relationship? That depends very much on the political wisdom and strategic judgments of the two countries’ leaders. The summit sought to set a general direction, and will surely have a strategic impact on relations.
For one thing, whether we look at China and the U.S. themselves or at the evolving international situation, the bilateral relationship is clearly entering a new phase. The question now is how to build a new type of relationship between great powers that features equality and trust, tolerance, mutual learning and win-win cooperation. To answer this, both Xi and Obama should draw on the lessons to be learned from the development of relations to this point.
And whether it is the bilateral relationship, or security in Northeast Asia, or the global economic recovery and other global challenges, Beijing and Washington need strategic communication and long-term planning to coordinate positions, control differences and seek common ground.
In Sino-U.S. relations, we can identify both traditional and emerging issues. In fact, traditional issues, like Taiwan, are to some extent predictable, manageable and controllable. Both sides have made their principles clear and the questions have been extensively considered over many years. In other words, although these problems may not be able to be solved in the short term, they are not the variables in contemporary Sino-U.S. relations.
In contrast, emerging issues like cybersecurity, intellectual property protection or escalating tensions between China and its neighbors are new factors with potential implications for Sino-U.S. relations. These factors may be more significant and more difficult to predict and control.
The recent agenda for negotiations and the first China policy document produced during Obama’s second term, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013, offer a glimpse of the new factors influencing bilateral relations. The two leaders must promptly and effectively communicate on these strategic issues involving national security and the development of bilateral relations. Indeed, that’s why the Xi-Obama summit was moved forward.
The summit covered topics of pressing concern for both parties, and saw some extremely frank and constructive discussion. For example, when talking about cybersecurity issues – a major concern for the United States – Xi pointed out that new technology was a double-edged sword, and cybersecurity issues were one of the side effects. He then stressed that cybersecurity was not only of concern to the United States; as a victim of attacks China also seeks security in cyberspace.
Meanwhile, Xi turned attention to Sino-U.S. military relations. During the joint press briefing, China’s president said the two countries should “improve and develop bilateral military ties and push forward the construction of a new type of military relations.” This reflects both the self-confidence of new China’s leader and is a demonstration of China’s strategic transparency.
It is well known that military issues are both a weak point and a barometer of the bilateral relationship, and are one of the major strategic concerns that the U.S. has about China. One of the key features of the Obama administration’s China policy has been to build military exchange mechanisms to attenuate concerns, reduce misperceptions and remove the risk of miscalculation. Xi’s words can be taken as a positive response to Obama’s recommendations, and that in turn will provide an important platform based on which the two countries can build mutual trust.
Of course, one summit is not going to resolve the thorny structural problems that exist between Beijing and Washington. Yet summits like this one have an important role to play in changing the way leaders communicate, as they enhance understanding of policy positions and serve as clear expressions of goodwill.
Nothing worthwhile is easy at the start. Now that Xi and Obama have taken a solid first step, the rest of us can feel more optimistic about the future of Sino-U.S. relations.
Chen Jimin Ph.D is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C