China and the U.S.: A Little Big Summit

President Obama and China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, convene this week in Rancho Mirage for their first face-to-face discussion as presidents. It is a summit without precedent in Sino-American relations. Both leaders agreed to informal discussions very different from the highly structured agendas generally associated with presidential meetings.

Detached from the diplomatic protocol and elaborate preparations of most summits and physically far removed from both capitals, the two days of meetings have a very different objective. Little heed will be paid to the “deliverables” often used to measure success or failure in discussions between heads of state. By focusing first on understanding each other and the challenges both countries face, the two hope to achieve a comfort level that will enable larger achievements over the longer run.

The range of issues confronting the two presidents is daunting. Among the top-tier issues they must address: mounting suspicions in each country about the other’s strategic intentions; an increasingly troubled security environment extending from the Korean peninsula to the East China and South China seas; the prospect of an open-ended U.S.-China military competition in the Pacific; illicit Chinese cyber intrusions designed to acquire the technology and corporate secrets of U.S. firms; and major differences over economic strategy. Enhanced collaboration on clean energy and climate change also remains largely unfulfilled.

Paradoxically, the relationship between America and China is far more extensive and interactive today than at any point in the last four decades. But the two countries have yet to realize a shared concept of global and regional order to govern 21st century politics, economic development and international security. Without such a concept, both countries could retreat into narrow self-interest that would deny the possibility of a larger political transformation that both claim to seek.

The two nations have relied on formulaic characterizations of their respective strategies that neither leadership finds persuasive or reassuring.

China, for example, repeatedly espouses the goal of peaceful development and insists that it does not seek to exclude or diminish U.S. leadership in Asia. The United States argues that it seeks to rebalance its global strategy to reflect the shifting center of economic and strategic gravity to Asia and the Pacific, while insisting that this is not code for inhibiting China’s longer-term regional role. But neither puts much credence in the other’s preferred bumper sticker.

In recent months, both leaderships have begun to discuss a more inclusive bilateral framework to forestall heightened competition or overt antagonism. However, without sustained cooperation on vital issues, any new strategic concept will lack relevance.

Three issues seem likely to be uppermost on the U.S. agenda: more meaningful cooperation to inhibit North Korean risk-taking and Pyongyang’s heightened pursuit of nuclear weapon and missile capabilities; rules of the road to curtail cyber espionage; and more equitable rules governing Sino-American trade and investment, including the ability of U.S. firms to gain fuller and fairer market entry in China. In the U.S. view, these goals will test China’s readiness to move beyond words of assurance as it pledges to pursue a new concept of major power relations.

In turn, China wants the U.S. to demonstrate a commitment to a future regional order that fully legitimizes China’s role. But neither president can expect to dominate the terms of debate. Both must impart a shared commitment to address the pressing issues that threaten to undermine the prosperity and stability that Asia and the Pacific have long enjoyed — or the opportunity to achieve a larger transformation in bilateral relations will be lost.

Obama, mindful of his compressed opportunities as a second-term president, knows that he has a limited window within which to build relations for the longer term. Barring ill health or political upheaval within China, Xi has a 10-year time frame. He also seems a far more assured, self-confident politician than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. But he must demonstrate that he can grasp the opportunities for a genuine change in bilateral relations.

Xi faces a prodigious array of political and economic challenges that will test his capacity to shape China’s future. He also must build an internal political coalition able to counteract the self-aggrandizing behavior of powerful domestic constituencies, assuming he has the will to do so.

China may seem an economic and strategic juggernaut destined to emerge as the world’s largest power, but on-the-ground realities suggest otherwise. Unmet middle-class expectations for more individual autonomy, public alienation over the nation’s unequal distribution of wealth and widespread corruption, and mounting public demands for clean air and safe food and water bespeak the growing demands of a society experiencing unprecedented change and pressures from below.

The meetings in Rancho Mirage will require a level of candor and mutual legitimation from both leaders seldom achieved in summitry. The outcome will reveal much about the capacity of both presidents to transcend suspicions and move toward a larger transition in international relations.

Whether they are able to seize the possibilities remains to be seen, but the process must begin with the unprecedented conversations taking place this week.