U.S.-China summit offers chance at improved relations

The summit meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping scheduled for June 7 and 8 in Rancho Mirage, Calif., could help the two leaders move closer to their stated goal of creating a “new type of major power relationship.” The challenge the two presidents face will be to give that broad concept specific content.
 
The fact that the meeting will be held in a private setting — the 200-acre Walter and Leonore Annenberg Sunnylands estate — and will span two days is a good sign. It shows that both men are serious about developing a deeper knowledge of each other as leaders, along with a clearer understanding of the goals and ambitions each holds for the relationship.
 
Many people have spoken of the “mutual strategic suspicion” that exists between China and the United States. That suspicion is real and deep. It greatly inhibits the ability of the two countries to move boldly forward together on a common agenda.
 
To overcome that suspicion, many people have called for building “mutual strategic trust.” But that is probably too ambitious a goal in the short to medium term. Rather, we should seek to build mutual confidence, predictability and transparency.
 

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Over time this may lead to greater trust, but for now we need to be clearer about what motivates the other side and what actions we can expect from each other. For this, in addition to the many official channels of communication that already exist, we need to create a reliable basis for more open communication at the highest level.
 
There are obviously specific questions that each leader will want to bring up. Cybersecurity, economic relations and regional security problems come readily to mind.
 
North Korea will clearly be on the agenda. While China shares America’s concern about the direction of many North Korean policies, including Pyongyang’s proclaimed unwillingness to denuclearize and its continued testing of long-range missiles and nuclear devices, until recently Beijing has been reluctant to hold a meaningful discussion with the U.S. about these issues.
 
That needs to change. It is not up to the leaders to hammer out details — experts working for them should do that. But it is essential that Presidents Obama and Xi think together about these matters and try to work through any differences they have in their overall policy approaches to the North.
 
American and Chinese relations with Japan need to be clearly explained. Many Chinese perceive a revival of right-wing Japanese militarism. But while there are legitimate concerns about some of the ideas that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe holds and some of the things he has said about issues relating to history, Americans do not see Abe moving Japan away from its long-held desire to be a peaceful and constructive leader in the region and the world.
 
President Obama should hear out anything President Xi wants to say about his concerns regarding Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship. At the same time, President Xi needs to hear directly from President Obama his attitudes toward Japan and the importance the Washington attaches to the overall American relationship with Tokyo, including the security alliance.
 
The Middle East is another area where one might hope the two leaders could explore each other’s attitudes and goals, so that future communication and efforts at coordination have a greater chance of success.
 
One should not be naive about the likely achievements coming out of the California meeting — the meetings of leaders can hardly resolve all the problems, nor is one meeting enough to establish strong rapport and open communication.
 
There needs to be a series of such meetings to build mutual confidence and to explore the strategic thinking as well as short-term constraints that each leader sees affecting Sino-American relations.
 
While the importance of constructive U.S.-China relations is self-evident, creating such relations will not happen automatically. If there is to be a reasonable chance of transforming bilateral ties into the “new type of great power relationship” that both leaders are committed to, and of achieving the kinds of goals laid out here, greater communication and confidence between them is crucial.
 
The Sunnylands summit is an excellent place to start.
 

Romberg, is a distinguished fellow and director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank that studies peace and security challenges around the world. He spent 20 years as a U.S. Foreign Service officer.