Reserving differences while finding common ground

China’s President Xi Jinping and his team should be very pleased—and very relieved— with the outcome of the summit meeting with President Obama this week. They got in and out of Washington without any public embarrassments or disagreements. Even the few public references to disagreements that President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry made were contextualized as the normal part of a complex relationship that had to be managed. As President Obama noted at their joint press conference: “I’m committed to expanding our cooperation, even as we address disagreements candidly and constructively. That’s what President Xi and I have done on this visit—during our working dinner last night and our meetings today.” This is a reflection of President Obama’s personal diplomatic style, as he is not confrontational in public and polite in private. President Xi was also dignified and calm in all of his public appearances. Both men sought to accent the positive in the relationship.

Thus, from the Chinese perspective, a primary goal was accomplished: lots of photos of summit pageantry (Honor Guard welcoming ceremony and elaborate state dinner) and minimal public embarrassment. President Xi and his delegation were exposed to many demonstrators—including just outside the White House and State Department and their protest were audible throughout the Rose Garden joint press conference.  Overall, though, the media “optics” and symbolism of the visit should have satisfied Beijing.

Substantively, the major message conveyed by the summit was of the world’s two major powers doing their best to work together on a broad menu of global governance issues. A detailed “factsheet” of US-China perspectives on “global and regional challenges” enumerated specific areas of cooperation. This was also apparent in both president’s public comments, as well as those by Vice President Biden and Secretary Kerry.
Clearly, the Obama administration still places a high premium on China as a partner in global governance. This was their priority when they came into office seven years ago and was the centerpiece of Obama’s own November 2009 state visit to China—only to be rebuffed by the Chinese side. At that time, China still lacked confidence in the multilateral arena and suspiciously viewed American entreaties for becoming a “responsible international stakeholder” as another plot to retard China’s rise by getting it overextended in the world.

But, in the interim, China has gained more multilateral confidence and has stepped up its contributions to various global governance activities—in peacekeeping, public health, counter-terrorism, climate change, nuclear security, anti-piracy, sustainable development, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and other areas—and it is thus now more possible for the two powers to cooperate. Xi Jinping himself signaled a greater receptivity to China’s diplomatic activism. As President Obama told him at their joint press conference: “President Xi, I want to thank you again for expanding your commitment to cooperation between our nations. I believe that it’s another reminder that as we work to narrow our differences, we can continue to advance our mutual interests for the benefit not only of our two peoples, but for the benefit of the world.”
Even if it is not a G-2, global governance cooperation could prove to be the missing “glue” to the strategic relationship in recent years.  This summer’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue similarly placed a premium on global cooperation. So, almost by stealth and amid much clamor over the two government’s many differences, perhaps some ballast is being rebuilt in the frayed relationship.

While important for the world as well as both powers, global governance cooperation is not a panacea for restoring full health to the troubled Sino-American relationship. The reasons for the troubles are well-known, they are real and run deep, and not easily resolved. Management of them—containing them from hemorrhaging into other areas of the relationship—is a diplomatic accomplishment. Occasionally—as appears to potentially be the case with the cyber corporate espionage issue at this summit—actual tangible progress can be made. Another example are military confidence building measures to avoid accidents at sea or in the air that could escalate into an armed confrontation.

Progress in sensitive and difficult areas such as these can be achieved only through intensive diplomatic engagement—and presidential summits offer the needed opportunity to forge consensus that are difficult to reach by second-level officials (this is known as “action-forcing diplomacy”). That, in itself, is sufficient reason to hold periodic presidential summits. The other reason, though, is for direct and straightforward discussions at the highest levels of government on areas of serious disagreement—lest they fester and metastasize. The third reason is to forge tangible cooperation in specific areas wherever possible.

In these three regards, the 2015 Obama-Xi Summit must be judged a success. Progress was made, trust was built, and the two great powers on the planet have stabilized their relations. The question is: how long will it last? Previous summits over the past decade have exhibited a same stabilizing pattern—only for mistrust, disagreements, and acrimony to return after a few months’ passage of time. If nothing else, that is a strong rationale to hold bilateral summits (which need not be state visits) at regular six-month intervals. Both nations and the world need the stability summits provide. The history of Sino-American relations since President Nixon and Chairman Mao met back in 1972 shows clearly that presidential involvement and investment is imperative to keeping the relationship on track.]

This piece originally appeared in China-US Focus