The Debate

Rethinking the Obama-Xi Summit

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The Debate

Rethinking the Obama-Xi Summit

How the U.S. might use the summit for a new “new model of great power relations.”

Rethinking the Obama-Xi Summit
Credit: The White House

China-bashing is always in vogue during American presidential campaigns and the 2016 race is no exception.

In 1992, Bill Clinton famously excoriated President George H. W. Bush for “coddling the butchers of Beijing” (though Clinton also demonstrated later how a candidate’s tune can change dramatically once in office).

In this year’s large Republican field, Donald Trump is leading the anti-China rhetoric, lambasting Beijing’s currency devaluation, trade practices, and the spin-off U.S. stock market losses caused by China’s own financial and economic problems.

The role of basher-in-chief comes naturally to Trump, given his outspoken view that Chinese leaders out-smart, out-maneuver, and out-negotiate Washington at every turn. The Chinese are “clever” and “cunning” while U.S. leaders are “stupid” and “incompetent.”

His argument, partially supported by the facts, seems to be that while Beijing touts its “win-win” approach to China-U.S. relations, it always ends up one way: China wins-America loses. Even when the so-called brilliant Chinese leaders stumble and China actually seems to lose, we still don’t win. Intertwined as our economies are by globalization, China simply drags the rest of the world down with it. China’s stock market crash was quickly followed by historic declines in European and U.S. markets.

Not to be out-Trumped, other presidential candidates also lash out at China and the Obama administration’s handling of relations (though, in truth, there has been little deviation in China policy since the latter part of George W. Bush’s term).

Governor Scott Walker has made a more sweeping attack on U.S.-China policy while also recommending a specific response. Echoing Trump’s criticism of China’s currency and trade manipulations, Walker has issued a broader indictment to include Beijing’s extravagant maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea, its cyber attacks on the U.S., and its grievous human rights record.

To demonstrate the seriousness which Washington attaches to “China’s increasing attempts to undermine U.S. interests,” Walker flatly declares that “President Obama needs to cancel the state visit” by Xi Jinping in September. Withdrawing a presidential invitation would certainly send a message of disapproval to the Chinese leader over a range of affronts directed at the United States.

The motivation to respond in a dramatically tangible way to China’s hostile actions is well-founded, but may be too blunt a breach of diplomatic protocol and could prompt undeserved international sympathy for China along with criticism of Washington.

A better approach might be to leave the Xi invitation open but to make clear that this will not be the usual summit characterized by what Walker labels as “pomp and circumstance” and anodyne joint statements that minimize and blur the differences between the governments.

Instead, Obama should put Xi on notice that this meeting will be a new “new model of great power relations” different from what was announced at their California summit in 2013 – call it New Model of Relations 2.0. He should demand genuine progress on eliminating China’s aggressive challenges on a broad range of issues, with particular emphasis in four areas. Short of Xi’s specific commitments to alleviate U.S. concerns, Washington will take actions of its own.

Obama should offer two summit alternatives to Xi.

Version A (preferred):

South China Sea: China announces its intention to dismantle its military and related structures on its artificial islands and disavows any intention to make territorial claims based on that construction. It also agrees to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to create a formal Code of Conduct to govern the competing maritime claims based on the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

Taiwan: China renounces the use of force or coercion against Taiwan no matter how the Taiwanese people decide their political future and their relationship with China. It also agrees that Taiwan should participate fully in international organizations, including the United Nations.

Cyber warfare: China agrees to cease all cyber thefts against the U.S. government and all cyber espionage against American businesses.

Human rights: China agrees to release Liu Xiaobo and his fellow dissidents as well as the human rights lawyers who defend them and encourages the freedom of expression they pursue.

Setting: Obama will host Xi at the White House with full honors, 21-gun salute, a formal state dinner, and toasts praising his mature leadership and peaceful intentions as qualifying him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Version B:

Without the necessary Chinese commitments to more responsible, peaceful behavior, the U.S. will publicly act in four areas.

Commence robust Freedom of Navigation exercises within twelve miles of the manmade islands and take all necessary measures to prevent interference with freedom of the seas and overflight.

Declare its firm intention to defend Taiwan against any form of Chinese aggression.

Treat cyber attacks as a form of aggression and undertake appropriate retaliatory actions.

Launch a concerted and sustained campaign to expose China’s human rights record and support freedom of expression in China, including increased funding for Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

Setting: Camp David, no fanfare, business meetings at which U.S. lays out its complaints regarding PRC hostility and its intentions to resist them. Xi responds in kind with China’s charges against U.S. “containment” and “interference.”

While Xi will certainly want the full red carpet treatment envisioned in Version A of the summit, he is highly unlikely to accept the conditions required to earn it. As for Version B, he may wish to use the opportunity to shore up his domestic support among Communist hardliners and the military.

But he will surely chafe at the minimalist trappings of the meeting and for that reason alone, he may decide to cancel the entire event. If so, the diplomatic onus will be on China and an unpleasant and probably unproductive meeting will be avoided without unacceptable cost to the U.S. More importantly, China’s leaders will have learned that the old illusory “win-win” game will no longer work and they will need to get serious about joining the international order.

Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.