US-China talks: Huge opportunity, formidable challenges

The summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping is a huge - and challenging - opportunity. Domestic, regional and global factors are making the current situation a strategic inflection point, writes Bruce W. Jentleson.

Having been in Beijing in April for a conference and for the past month in Australia giving a series of lectures and engaging with regional strategists, I have even more of a sense of these intersecting inflection points.

While China's new leadership is now in place, pulls and tugs continue among various constituencies with their own policy views and interests. On foreign policy the dynamics are much more complex than the simplistic nationalists vs. internationalists often depicted in the West, with by some accounts as many as seven schools of thought contending. The core foreign policy debate is whether China's national interest is best served by continuing the greater assertiveness of the past few years.

This bears on such issues as the military competition with the United States, regional disputes such as the South China Sea and Diaoyu-Senkaku islands, and China's pervasive cyber-hacking. Domestically the core debate is over the shift from quantitative development - go for the highest GDP growth rate - to qualitative development and greater priority to such issues as environmental quality, fighting corruption, and a more domestic consumption oriented growth strategy.


For all the touting of the US "pivot" to Asia, it has had three major dilemmas of its own. First, how to increase US commitments in the region, both diplomatic and military, in ways that "re-balance" against what are seen as Chinese efforts to tilt regional balances in its own favor, without worsening or creating what China sees as imbalances against it? This includes relations with Japan that on the one hand provide reassurance consistent with security treaty obligations while on the other do not let them think they have a blank check to pursue their own antagonisms with China.

Second, how to give increased priority to Asia in addition to, not instead of, other global priorities? Just because the war in Iraq is over and the Afghanistan war will be soon, the Middle East has not and will not go away; so too other pressing issues in other regions that keep cropping up, like Mali. Third, how to pursue any coherent and consistent strategy amidst fiscal constraints and Republican political obstructionism at home?

A conversation with an Australian military officer nicely conveyed the dilemma for many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. We wanted you Americans to push back against China starting back in 2010, he made clear, when they had started becoming more assertive in the region. And the 2,500 Marine rotation at our base in Darwin is helpful. But if you overplay your hand and make this into your own bilateral competition with China that damages our own interests in relations with them, we're not with you. He also made that clear. One hears similar views from many other countries in the region that have their own bilateral trade, investment and security interests with China.

It's these fluid dynamics that while not foreboding an immediate crisis do make the Obama-Xi summit both so important and so challenging. Success depends on four objectives.

Core objectives

Build strategic trust: At its core the current US-China relationship exemplifies what scholars and strategists call the "security dilemma." How do I make my country and its allies more secure without making your country feel less secure? Even once political rhetoric is filtered out, genuine bases for lack of strategic trust are still there on both sides. This type of leader-to- leader summit, beyond talking points and tight schedules, allows for real discourse among two Presidents. It won't fully resolve differences, but it can establish a relationship between the two Presidents that can be tapped over time.

Focus in on shared interests and take real steps on them: Two issues, contentious in recent years, now seem riper for cooperation. One is North Korea. China's interests remain avoiding the kind of instability that could set off massive refugee flows across their border. But open-ended support for the regime is coming to be seen as counterproductive to those interests. While not quite stated in these terms, I did get a sense while in Beijing of indignation over that little country acting out in ways problematic for our big country, especially by this 20-something boy leader.

Avert a spiraling regional arms race: The essence of the security dilemma is evident in the very terminology each side uses in US protests over maritime access being threatened by China's naval "anti-access" capabilities, while China defending such weaponry as "counter-intervention" capabilities. For the US the challenge is to reassure allies of its will and capacity to support their security if it is genuinely threatened by China without exacerbating Chinese threat perceptions. For China the challenge is to not exacerbate threat perceptions of others in the region while redressing its own legitimate concerns about imbalance. A related issue is cyber-hacking, on which there already are signals of cooperative initiatives. The politics of both sides under pressure from their respective militaries and other "hawks" compound the problem. 

Be frank about differences and develop crisis prevention and management understandings and procedures: Don't demagogue differences, but also don't paper them over. They are there. They will continue to be there. What are needed are understandings and procedures for managing tensions so that they don't become crises and, if they do start to escalate, for crisis management. 21st century versions of hot lines, protocols for consultations and other such technological links and bureaucratic processes will help. But this is where leader-to-leader relationships are so crucial.

This is a challenging agenda - but a necessary one. While hardly the only factor shaping the 21st century world, US-China relations are one of the keys. The Obama-Xi summit is a huge opportunity to turn this key in the right direction. 

Bruce W. Jentleson is Professor of Public Policy. From 2009-11 he served as a Senior Advisor at the US State Department. This commentary was originally published in Deutsche Welle (DW).