How Obama Should Approach Xi in Beijing

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Watch the John L. Thornton China Center’s “Obama in China” conference proceedings, which include keynote addresses by former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and current Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics Caroline Atkinson and panels discussing the strategic, economic, environmental and domestic implications of President Obama’s trip.

President Obama will travel to Beijing on November 9 to participate in an official state visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping alongside the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting. This will be the first major encounter between the two leaders since they met in Sunnylands, California in June 2013. Since that meeting, however, other hotspots around the world have claimed the spotlight, but U.S.-China cooperation has never been more critical. Brookings John L. Thornton China Center scholars Richard Bush, David Dollar, Cheng Li, Jonathan Pollack and nonresident fellows David Shambaugh and Dan Wright offer insight into how President Obama can have a productive visit with President Xi in Beijing.

Richard Bush: Obama Should Stress The Value of Democracy in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is in a democracy standoff. Students, activists, and citizens occupy key urban arteries in protest against the Chinese government’s mandate for the 2017 one-person-one-vote election for the territory’s chief executive. A dialogue between one group of students and senior officials of the Hong Kong government has begun, but that is all. Each side has laid out its fundamental stance; real bargaining has yet to begin.

Three interrelated tasks must be addressed. The first is clearing the major roads that the Occupy Movement is holding. Protesters and the police coexist peacefully in two of the areas. The third (Mongkok) has seen periodic violence. As long as the occupation continues, a major incident may occur or China may lose patience and decide on a crackdown. But a stand-down is difficult. Neither side trusts the intentions of the other. Each side must answer to other actors: the Hong Kong government to Beijing and the students to other groups in a loose coalition.

The second task is to foster consensus on the arrangements for the 2017 chief executive election. Beijing’s plan, which provoked the protests in the first place, placed limits on how candidates were nominated, giving it an effective veto. The Occupy movement seeks a genuinely competitive election, which Beijing and the Hong Kong elite fear would produce a radical chief executive. The Hong Kong government has hinted that Beijing’s plan might be adjusted to enhance competition and accountability, but the protesters remain to be convinced. Unless they have some promise of a favorable outcome, they are unlikely to withdraw. If they do withdraw but are later disappointed in the Hong Kong government’s electoral adjustments, they are likely to resume occupations.

The third task is more difficult and long-term. That is to address the fundamental sources of the Hong Kong public’s political frustration (aside from the absence of democracy): income and wealth inequality, limited job opportunities for young people, and lack of suitable housing for new families. A more democratic system is now seen as the means to reduce inequality and increase social mobility. But instituting competitive elections will not guarantee effective social and economic policies. Without policy solutions, public frustration and protest are likely to continue.

In his meeting with President Xi, President Obama should do the following:
• Commend China for moving towards a one-person-one-vote system, which is an improvement on having a 1200-member committee pick the chief executive.
• Authoritatively deny that the United States in anyway has instigated the protests (a Chinese propaganda claim). In fact, the protests are a home-grown response to China’s policies.
• Urge creative flexibility as the Hong Kong government works out the details of the new electoral system, to ensure that Hong Kong voters have a genuine choice;
• And stress the value to China of an effective democratic system in Hong Kong.

David Dollar: Obama Should Push Simultaneously for Bilateral Investment Treaty and Trans-Pacific Partnership

At the APEC summit in Bogor, Indonesia, 20 years ago, the group set the objective of open trade and investment throughout the Asia-Pacific by 2020. As we approach 2015 it seems unlikely that this target will be met for the whole region. Opening up protected sectors to trade and investment has just been too heavy a lift for many countries.

This lack of progress has given rise to a number of more limited efforts to reduce trade and investment barriers. The most ambitious of these is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), involving 12 economies of APEC. The recently completed TPP ministerial in Australia provides hope that a deal might be reached within a few months, though difficult issues remain, especially concerning Japan’s agricultural markets. There is not much that President Obama can do on this trip to address the TPP, but in any group or one-on-one meetings with other TPP leaders he should push this as the highest priority for advancing Asia-Pacific economic integration.

The other important economic agreement on which President Obama can focus is the Bilateral Investment Treaty between the U.S. and China. Again, there is not much that the President can do. The two sides have agreed to exchange initial “negative lists” of proposed exclusions by first quarter 2015. Publicly and privately the president should encourage China to come up with a short, realistic list that could result quickly in an actual deal.

The issues of TPP and the BIT are linked. China is worried about being left out of TPP so progress on that agreement encourages China to pursue reform more vigorously. And a BIT could be an important step towards China joining the TPP before long. If the big economies of Asia can forge a truly ambitious trade and investment agreement, then it is likely that all of APEC will eventually follow—perhaps not by 2020, but hopefully not long thereafter.

Cheng Li: Obama Should Share The American Experience to Deepen Mutual Understanding

The brilliant Chinese artist Xu Bing is famous for inventing “new” Chinese characters that are nonsensical to Chinese speakers. Though some of Xu’s creations embody English words, they are falsely perceived by English speakers as authentic Chinese characters. Xu’s work is reflective of the mutual misperceptions that can arise between cultures and across national borders, a phenomenon that continues to plague U.S.-China relations. Two prevailing sentiments –– perceived U.S.-led containment of China and the threat posed to America by China’s growing economic and military strength –– have set the two major powers on a confrontational course. To put this crucial bilateral relationship back on track, President Obama and President Xi must use the summit in Beijing to deepen mutual understanding and publically challenge these misperceptions.

The shifts in the global political and economic landscape have naturally created tension and suspicion. However, a Cold War mentality and nineteenth-century mindset must not dominate our thinking in a world where economic globalization is unprecedented in scale and scope. Despite economic controversies – Chinese companies’ market access in the United States, China’s industrial policies favoring state-owned enterprises, the establishment of China-led AIIB, and the U.S.-led TPP – no international institution that aims to promote global economic integration can truly thrive if it excludes either China or the United States. Furthermore, both presidents have strong incentives to cooperate in other crucial areas such as counterterrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, cybersecurity, anti-graft, climate change, and global health.

In global politics, personal rapport between leaders can help bridge strategic divides. President Xi’s fondness for NBA basketball, his wife’s engagement with the Gates Foundation on AIDS prevention and tobacco control in China, and his daughter’s education at Harvard are testaments to the positive impact of broader cultural and societal exchange between the United States and China. President Obama should converse with Xi not as a former law professor, but as an African-American president. He should share his American experience and the lessons he has taken from history. He should discuss why democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are critical for China’s development. Doing so, Obama can show Chinese leaders, and especially the Chinese public, that America’s emphasis of these values is not driven by disrespect, but rather by respect, sincerity, and good intentions.

Jonathan Pollack: Bilateral Ties Can Only Advance if Both Countries Agree

President Obama’s trip to Beijing will be his second visit to China and his fourth face-to-face encounter with China’s president Xi Jinping since their initial meeting in Sunnylands, California in June 2013. Following Beijing, the president will travel to Burma for the East Asia Summit and Australia for the meeting of the G-20. All three visits attest to the Obama administration’s continued efforts to place the Asia-Pacific region at the center of its foreign policy.

The president’s visit to Beijing will generate ample attention, both in a multilateral and bilateral context. The Obama administration hopes to achieve forward movement in pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the multilateral trade agreement on which the credibility and sustainability of the “rebalance to Asia” heavily depends. (China is not a party in these negotiations.) Very few observers anticipate an early culmination of the TPP, but an inability to advance this process (especially with Japan) would directly undermine the core of the rebalance policy.

However, challenges in the U.S.-China relationship will loom equally large during President Obama’s trip. Since the full rollout of the rebalance policy in the fall of 2011, Chinese officials have cast an especially wary eye on U.S. strategy in Asia. American officials have repeatedly insisted that the rebalance presumes China’s full inclusion in the emergent regional order. But the Chinese also have ideas about the regional future, some of which do not presume a full U.S. role. At the same time, Beijing continues to call for “new model of major power relations,” but American endorsements of this concept seem far more conditional and cautionary.

The challenge in next week’s discussions between the two leaders must be to establish a tone and realistic, achievable agenda for the remainder of President Obama’s term, and to minimize wherever possible the divergence in U.S. and Chinese policy goals. Though bilateral relations are not in a free fall, neither leader can take much satisfaction from prevailing circumstances. The United States and China may be joined at the hip, but they have not achieved a full meeting of the minds.

The Obama administration will seek tangible steps to advance Sino-American relations during its final two years in office. These include hopes to reenergize negotiations of a bilateral investment treaty and meaningful steps on climate change. The United States is also intent on much more candid discussions with Chinese counterparts on a full range of deeply vexing security issues, including mounting tensions in the maritime domain, continued worries about North Korean nuclear and missile development, and fuller rules of the road in U.S.-China military relations.

The urgency of these issues is beyond dispute. The question is whether both countries have an equivalent commitment to confront questions that neither can expect to address fully on their own. Next week’s deliberations in Beijing and beyond will provide important hints on what might be possible over the next two years.

David Shambaugh: Obama Should Play Up Cooperation Over Competition

The American and Chinese presidents meet once again this week in Beijing. The last time President Obama set foot in the Great Hall of the People was five years ago on November 2009, and the visit did not go well. New Chinese hubris was on display in spades, and both the atmospherics and substance of that state visit were negative. Since then, five years of turbulent change has occurred across the world. U.S.-China regional and global cooperation is needed more than ever, yet the two great nations are drifting further and further apart and tensions continue to rise. Those who do not recognize it or deny it are detached from reality. The Sino-American relationship has entered a period of prolonged estrangement. The reasons are multiple and complex, but they are also entirely natural and predictable–as these two powers possess extremely different visions of world order, exhibit the classic manifestations of the rising power/established power historical dynamic, and have a full menu of bilateral and regional differences between them. For these reasons, it is imperative that the two presidents meet to discuss these complex issues and multiple differences. A one-day dialogue in the Great Hall of the People is hardly going to dispel the differences, as they are systemic and endemic to the relationship, are the “new normal” to which both nations (and all other nations) need to adjust, but must be dealt with in a responsible manner by both Beijing and Washington.

The U.S.-China relationship has exhibited both elements of cooperation and competition for fifty years since President Nixon made his historic visit to China. Until 2009 cooperation was the dominant feature, but since that time competition is now the dominant feature. The competition is comprehensive–across the diplomatic, economic, political, ideological, cultural (soft power), military/strategic, bilateral, regional, and (increasingly) global domains. The single greatest challenge to both nations for the foreseeable future is to manage this competition–without allowing it to bleed increasingly into a full adversarial relationship, while making every possible effort to expand the zone of cooperation between these two great powers. This will not be easy, given an array of factors and influences, but both presidents and both nations must do everything possible to achieve a cooperative–rather than adversarial–future together.

Dan Wright: Obama Should Help Promote Domestic Chinese Reforms

We should wish China well. Although bilateral summits are understandably and often about what each country would gain through these meetings, the United States should hope that the November Obama-Xi summit is leveraged within China to advance the country’s own reform agenda. A truly strengthened role of the market and competition in the economy, a heightened place of the law and justice in society, a greater openness to multinational corporations in previously restricted sectors and in new free trade zones, progress on a bilateral investment treaty, and new efforts to combat global climate change are all topics that are consistent with American interests.

However, a meeting between these heads of state that advances issues like these is critical for China at this decisive moment in its own reform path. Many pundits argue that the summit will be nothing more than a photo-op during an otherwise increasingly difficult stretch in the bi-lateral relationship. It does not need to be that way. There is an opportunity here for China that Xi should not miss. We should wish that efforts to make practical progress in areas of mutual interest are leveraged to drive needed domestic change in China. We should wish China well.