Barack Obama and Xi Jinping have a chance to recast this century’s most important bilateral relationship.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, is unlikely to quote Thucydides when he meets his American counterpart, Barack Obama, at a summit in California on June 7th and 8th. But the spirit of the Greek historian will hover over the Sunnylands ranch. Chinese policy wonks are struck by his argument that it was the Spartans’ fear of the growing power of Athens that made war inevitable. Their insistence that China wants a “peaceful rise” is intended to calm such worries in America.
The ploy is not working. China’s relations with America have deteriorated in recent years, raising the spectre of conflict in East Asia. Buoyed up by its own economic success and Western stagnation, China has been asserting its claims in the region more aggressively, sending the neighbours scuttling back to the American security umbrella. Barack Obama’s response has been a “pivot” towards Asia. In the absence of trust, both sides will build up their military strength and responsible defensive behaviour could spiral into conflict.
Mr Xi has got at least one thing right. Last month he told Tom Donilon, America’s retiring national security adviser, that relations had reached a “critical juncture” and “a new type of great-power relationship” was needed.
Is Xi is, or is Xi ain’t Mao’s baby?
In 1972 Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger astonished the world by flying to China to hold discussions with Mao Zedong, during which they agreed to overlook their differences in order to further their mutual interests. Although many formal meetings have happened since, leaders of the two countries have rarely set aside such time as this week’s summit provides to hold similarly informal discussions (see article). They need to show the farsightedness of Nixon and Mao.
The world has changed enormously in four decades, and China even more. Buzzing with online feedback and dedicated to consumerism, some parts of China are now beginning to resemble America. Mao’s personal tyranny has yielded to a more collective leadership by the Politburo, but the system struggles to contain a 21st-century society.
Mr Xi, whose father was a comrade-in-arms of Mao, enjoys more personal authority than his dull predecessor, Hu Jintao. In office for less than a year, he has quickly consolidated his power. He has launched a crackdown on corruption and official extravagance (see article). He talks of more economic reform. He has burnished his nationalist credentials at home in a spat with Japan over island specks. To show China’s new diplomatic confidence, Mr Xi arrives in California via Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago (see article). The message: just as America claims to be a regional power in East Asia, China can plant its flag in the Caribbean. (It is planting its flag at other ports around the world too—see article.)
In some ways China’s new assertiveness makes co-operation harder. Powerful interests, including the People’s Liberation Army, brandishing new toys, believe America is committed to containing China and thwarting its rise. Mr Xi’s sabre-rattling reflects a much deeper rise in nationalist sentiment in Chinese society. Many Americans fear that China’s displacement of America as the world’s largest economy will swiftly be followed by its rise to the status of military superpower. Yet for both leaders, there is more to be gained from co-operation than conflict. Mr Obama has a far better chance of making headway on Iran, North Korea and climate change if America and China are working together. And Mr Xi knows that if America feels easier about China’s intentions, it is likely to give him more latitude in his region.
The spirit of Sunnylands
Messrs Obama and Xi need to start by confronting the immediate causes of tension in Sino-American relations. Chinese hackers have stolen intellectual property on a breathtaking scale (see article), while American Sinophobes have exploited curbs on exports to China, imposed after the 1989 slaughter in Tiananmen Square, to ban the export of goods with the most distant of military associations, such as brake pads and SIM cards. Mr Xi needs to send a signal that cybertheft will not be tolerated. Mr Obama needs to push to lift some restrictions.
Sunnylands should also be used as an opportunity to plan more summits in the future. It is extraordinary that the leaders of the world’s two great powers meet so rarely in this way. It is equally extraordinary that the current generation of American leaders includes no real heavyweights on matters Chinese: the Beijing leadership is still more inclined to consult Mr Kissinger than any of Mr Obama’s close confidants. It is easy to mock the idea of meetings for the sake of meetings. But they can create webs of mutual trust and even friendship that leaders can draw on in a crisis—and conversations over late-night drinks can do more to draw countries together than all the diplomats in the world.
This commitment to get to know each other better must extend to more co-operation over security. Asia is China’s backyard, but its neighbours want America to stay engaged. That means give-and-take. America could reduce arms sales to Taiwan in return for the withdrawal of Chinese missiles from the coast of Fujian. China could intensify efforts to stop North Korea from developing nuclear missiles in return for a commitment that, were that vile regime to collapse, American troops would remain stationed in South Korea, not on China’s border.
There are plenty of good reasons for America to be nervous about the rise of a new economic giant and to be angry about cyber-attacks, obstructionism over Syria or the regime’s brutality towards its own citizens. There are also plenty of reasons for China to be annoyed with America: Americans have been too willing to demonise successful Chinese companies such as Huawei or CNOOC. But the lesson of history is that everybody loses if the world allows legitimate worries to get out of hand. More than 2,000 years ago Greece was torn apart by Sparta’s failure to manage the rise of Athens. A hundred years ago Europe was torn apart by its failure to manage the rise of Germany. If the 21st century is to be more peaceful than the 20th, America and China must learn to co-operate better.