President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet for a full day of bilateral consultations on Nov. 12. Many observers have set the goal as maximizing "win-win" cooperation and "managing" areas of disagreement. Perhaps this is realistic, and indeed these should be among their priorities. But as important as these achievements would be, if that's all they achieve, it will have been a wasted opportunity.

The value of such intensive meetings, begun last June when they met for two days in California, is the opportunity for each leader to understand the forces driving his counterpart — his aspirations and hopes as well as his concerns and the pressures he faces.


Neither is going to bare his soul, nor are they going to emerge as best friends. Their political cultures, the problems their nations face and their personal backgrounds all mean that they cannot be expected to emerge from such an intense experience holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." But given the crucial nature of the Sino-American relationship for both nations and for the world, it is essential that they have a firm grasp of each other's motivations. Only if they have that will they have the necessary insights to shape their own policies in ways that will take advantage of the synergies between their countries while minimizing potential conflicts.

To say that the United States and China hold deep mutual strategic suspicions of one another is almost trite by now, but that doesn't invalidate the observation. Fine words about how much we can achieve together, while quite accurate in many cases, do not erase a profound belief in China that the United States seeks to remain overwhelmingly dominant and to limit China's rise and constrain its power and influence. They see Washington at every turn backing China's rivals and thwarting Chinese initiatives, whether in the East and South China Seas or in the world of international finance.

Similarly, Americans view the rapid modernization and expansion of China's military capability as well as its coercive use of its growing economic clout as indicative of Beijing's determination to become the arbiter of virtually all developments in East Asia and, in the course of this process, to circumscribe and eventually undermine what has for decades been a leading U.S. role in the region. It was revealing when, in a moment of anger four years ago, a senior Chinese official told his Asian neighbors to keep in mind that "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact."

Perhaps one cannot set aside the sense of unfairness that many Chinese feel about the way their country has been treated in the past, going back not only to the years since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 but also to the era a century before, when foreign nations carved out spheres of influence on the Chinese mainland at considerable human cost. So a feeling that "our time has come" should not be dismissed as mere petulance and unjustified hubris, as China has now achieved the status of the world's second-largest economy and a major player not only in East Asia but, in many respects, throughout the world.

But this is all the more reason for leaders to have a clearer sense of hopes and fears of their opposite numbers. Their political, social and economic circumstances as well as perceptions of national security requirements may differ profoundly, but the aspiration for security, a better life, and respect and dignity are universal human goals. No country has a monopoly on the wisdom on how to achieve them. And in an increasingly interconnected world, it is inevitable that the system and approaches of one country will rub up against those of another. When those countries are huge, as the United States and China are, the consequences can be enormous.

So what we should all hope for is that Presidents Obama and Xi spend a good deal of their time together probing what it is that the other leader is concerned about — and why; and what the other leader hopes he will do or not do — and why. Greater understanding will not solve all problems. In some cases it could actually exacerbate differences as contradictory objectives come into even sharper focus.

But Obama and Xi both have enormous responsibilities and most observers agree that there is an obvious need for the U.S. and China not only to cooperate where they can but also to effectively manage and even minimize differences, especially those with potential national security implications. It is therefore not too much to ask that they make clearer mutual understanding of fundamental forces in play a central goal of their meeting.

Romberg is a distinguished fellow and the director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center.