Xi Jinping assumed the top leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2012. Soon after, he took all the newly selected members of the Politburo Standing Committee to the National Museum of History and declared the China Dream of national rejuvenation. A few weeks later, Barack Obama was reelected as president of the United States and he vowed to continue his push for change, which was very much informed by dreams from his father. By early 2013, advisers of both the Chinese and American presidents felt it was high time for a relationship reset between Beijing and China and a meeting between the two leaders was very necessary. This led to the meticulously arranged meeting at the Sunnylands estate outside Los Angeles in June 2013. During this informal yet very substantive meeting, Xi declared that the China Dream is about cooperation, development, peace, and win-win cooperation, and it is connected to the American Dream.
After Sunnylands, Xi and Obama met numerous times in China, the United States, and other places where the leadership of the two countries was sought. They disagreed on many issues but they continued to share one dream: global peace and prosperity, which requires strong leadership from Beijing and Washington. That is why they agreed to sign on to the nuclear deal with Tehran, came together to talk about a world without nuclear weapons, offered support to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and tried to reduce misperceptions and misunderstandings between the two nations. Last year, while Xi was preparing for a leadership change in China, Obama probably never dreamed that the leader of the birther movement was going to be his successor in the White House.
However, there is no denying that President Donald Trump is also a dreamer. His dream may appear to be nightmarish to many in the United States but “America First” and “Make America Great Again” seem to be quite like the China Dream in both letter and spirit.
Since announcing his candidacy and becoming the 45th president of the United States, Trump has unleashed a string of negative attacks on China. Beijing is obviously nervous about where this unpredictable dreamer is going to take Washington’s China policy. At the same time, the world has entered a period of grave uncertainty: Moscow has demonstrated its capability to intervene militarily or electronically in all parts of the world, including the United States; Syria’s downward spiral into hell has not been stopped; Pyongyang continues to defy international opinion and tests ballistic missiles; the Islamic State is facing global elimination efforts but still has enough breath to recruit, inspire, and cause havoc in centers of civilizations; and nihilistic and anti-globalization nationalism is running amok in Europe. The world order that was put in place at the end of World War II is inching toward a possible collapse. Once again, advisers to the Chinese and American leaders felt it is time for Xi and Trump to meet without any further delay.
Envoys of the two leaders visited each other’s capital to prepare for the meeting that will be held on April 6 and 7, 2017 at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida. The joint announcement of the meeting was not made until March 30 and diplomats in Beijing and Washington have been vague on what will be discussed by the two leaders. During a recent meeting in Beijing, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi said he very much looked forward to the summit at Mar-a-Lago and hoped leaders of the two nations could look at the bilateral relationship from a long-term and strategic perspective. Yet on the afternoon of March 30, President Donald Trump tweeted that “the meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.”
At first glance, the upcoming summit may look a bit asymmetrical, with the Chinese searching for a long-term anchor for stable and productive bilateral relations and Americans looking for quick fixes on immediate issues that are tied to campaign promises.However, for both leaders to take home deliverables that are badly needed, they must be realistic about what is doable in the context of international and domestic constraints.
It is obvious both dreamers need a small basket of realistic “doables” to demonstrate to their supporters that they are bona fide leaders and skillful decision-makers. Trump has suffered quite a few setbacks since inauguration and seems to have nothing to show at the 100-day mark of his new administration. Xi also seeks a diplomatic success to shore up support ahead of the CPC’s 19th Congress in the fall. In addition to this, China needs a stable relationship with the United States so that the “new normal” of its economic growth does not become abnormal again. But what are these seemingly elusive “doables”? Can the U.S. extract concessions on the fronts of trade and North Korea without making China look as if it has caved in to American demands? Will China lower itself from the lofty stage of building a “new model of great power relations” to focus more on what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson categorized as a results-oriented approach?
The following are five “doable” things that both leaders may dwell on and ask their advisers to fully vet before they draft a joint statement turning a new page on the bilateral relationship. I rank them from the easiest to the more difficult. First, it is relatively easy for the two nations to coordinate their efforts to confront global challenges, wage peace, and offer developmental assistance to developing countries. It is common knowledge that joint leadership from the United States and China has turned the tide of the global effort to fight climate change from the debacle of Copenhagen to the success of Paris. Washington and Beijing have already worked together on conflict resolution in South Sudan, pursuing peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan, information sharing in promoting the Syrian transition, creating cybersecurity protocols, and hunting down international terrorists. Chinese and American health workers worked together in an unprecedented manner to contain the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and are on track to establish Africa’s first Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Given this context, it will be easy for Trump and Xi to pledge that both countries will work together to solve the political impasse in South Sudan, fight piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and bail northeast Nigeria out of its humanitarian crisis, which has become a cancerous source of Islamic radicalization. In addition, Trump is a real estate guru turned political leader. He should have a good understanding of the development dimension of China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative. Agreeing to send a high-level U.S. representative to the OBOR summit in May in Beijing will also generate a lot of positive energy in building a stronger bilateral relationship.
Second, perhaps surprisingly, is the potential for progress on the South China Sea issue. Despite being labeled as one of the triggers of possible U.S.-China conflict by many, the South China Sea dispute can be removed from the list of hot button issues if both leaders and their advisers are sincere in seeking common ground. Xi told Obama in 2015 during his state visit that China does not seek to militarize the islands under its control. Chinese leaders have always insisted that Beijing has no intention whatsoever to interfere with freedom of navigation. The U.S. emphasizes freedom of navigation and overflight, not taking sides in the ongoing territorial disputes. If United States stops high-profile Freedom of Navigation operations on the condition that China does not engage in further artificial island building or declare an air defense identification zone, it will create a calm environment for China and claimant countries to seek either bilateral or multilateral solutions that will contribute to sustaining this body of water as safe sea lanes of commerce and fisheries in the years to come.
Third would be a breakthrough on trade issues. For Trump, a key success to making his presidency a consequential one is to fulfill his campaign promise of boosting “made in America” and “hire American.” For Xi, avoiding possible trade sanctions from the United States that would disrupt China’s still export-oriented economy may also be a must because China’s economy is already much weaker than it was back in 2012. Can they speed up bilateral investment treaty (BIT) negotiations by identifying key roadblocks and removing them? Can they begin deliberation on conditions in which Chinese investment can be used for infrastructure renewal and rebuilding in the United States? Is it possible to announce a deal that can symbolize the huge potential of cooperation in this area? Can the United States lift certain export restrictions so that China can buy more high-tech American products? Can China permit Google and other U.S. internet companies to freely operate in China? This is an area of fertile cooperation and points can easily be scored. What is needed is the “art of the deal,” which Trump is very good at.
More difficult will be reaching consensus on North Korea. It was quite embarrassing when the Mar-a-Lago happy hour between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was disrupted by the news of a North Korean ballistic missile test. The incident was also an urgent reminder of how pressing resolving the nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsular is. Kim Jong-un keeps testing missile not only to disrupt international events (he did the same when China was hosting its first G20 summit in Hangzhou) but to go through all the needed procedures to gain delivery capability. When he has that, he will have a lot more to blackmail the international community and both Japan and South Korea will have the perfect excuse either to ask the United States to deploy a nuclear force on their soil or to allow them to build their own bombs. Trump blames China for its lack of assertiveness in dealing with North Korea. Chinese leaders tend to criticize the United States for not negotiating directly with the Kims and imply that Washington favors the festering of this regime so that it can deploy forces in Asia, including installing THAAD first in South Korea and then in Japan and even in Taiwan. These perceptions are false. Discussion must begin on what it would take for the United States to begin direct negotiation with Pyongyang. Will collective security assurances from the United States and China be sufficient for Kim Jong-un to open the door? Can a peace treaty with signatures from Washington, Beijing, the UN, and Pyongyang persuade North Korean leaders to give up their nuclear ambition? Both Trump and Xi should read about the peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis on their way to Mar-a-Lago.
Finally, there’s the Taiwan factor. One truism about U.S.-China relations is that the most important factor of the bilateral relationship is the triangular relationship among Taipei, Washington, and Beijing. What triggered the frantic search for a meeting between the two leaders was Trump’s decision to take a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and his cavalier way of using the One China policy as a bargaining chip. The reality now is that mainland China and Taiwan are so commercially, financially, and culturally connected that the role of divisive politics in promoting Taiwan independence in Taiwan has been in sharp decline. Even the election of a DPP president cannot change the fact that Taiwan’s people care more about liberty than sovereignty. It is not easy for the United States to repeal the Taiwan Relations Act. It is equally difficult for China to promise it won’t use force to reunify with Taiwan, as many in Beijing believe this threat is the only reason Taiwan is not seeking independence. However, many things can be done by both sides to make the Taiwan issue a non-issue in U.S.-China relations. For example, can the United States agree to reduce or even stop selling arms to Taiwan if China stops deploying missiles aiming at Taiwan? When negotiations between China and the United Kingdom on the future status of Hong Kong deadlocked, Deng Xiaoping broke it with the famous concept of “one country, two systems” that would be guaranteed for at least 50 years. Recently, mainland Taiwan affairs officials have floated the idea of “one China, two systems of governance,” which may also be used to allay the American fear that China may use force to make Taiwan part of China.
All these “doables” are realistic steps to improve the bilateral relationship in a very substantial way but it will take dreamers to accomplish them. What defines a dreamer is a personal vision that defies conventional wisdom, boldness in imagination, and assertiveness in execution. Both Trump and Xi are very well-qualified dreamers who are determined to improve the lives of the people they lead and make their nations great again.
Dr. Yawei Liu is the director of the China Program at the Carter Center and founding editor of the U.S.-China Perception Monitor. The Chinese version of this article will be available at dunjiaodu.com.