President Obama hosted President Xi Jinping of China at the White House on Friday, aiming to reach a deal on a range of topics, including climate change, cybersecurity and waterway rights. In the midst of economic stagnation and cyberattack scandals, it was only natural for us to wonder if this summit was doomed to fail. Washington and Beijing have had conflicting interests for decades, and this meeting between the two leaders was highly unlikely to solve any of the more pressing issues, such as the disputes in the South China Sea and cybersecurity. What will determine the success of this meeting moving forward is not defined by the number of advantages in the agreement the two nations secured for themselves, but instead by the building of a long-term, sustainable relationship where advancements and concessions will be made by each country in the long run.
The main goal of the summit is to deter the antagonism characteristic when dealing with US-China relations and move the competition of interests onto a more manageable course. The relationship between the two countries has no lack of problems. Governments aside, there are many misperceptions in American and Chinese views of each other. According to a survey by the Carnegie Endowment, nearly 90% of Chinese think Americans are aggressive, while Americans trust China as much as they trust Pakistan. With substantial gaps in understanding and the great mistrust of the other, there is no doubt that similar understanding will be exhibited by the government’s behavior in proceedings.
Recent cyberattack claims made by both governments have also strained the atmosphere surrounding the summit greatly. James Corney, FBI Director, commented during an interview with CBS that, “There are two kinds of big companies in the United States. There are those who have been hacked by the Chinese and those who don’t know they have been hacked by the Chinese.” China, before it was called out for stealing 5.6 million people’s fingerprints in December 2014, also claimed the moral high ground, mentioning the findings from the Snowden leak, stating that the US had carried out multiple attacks against its security intelligence. Although the possibility of cyber warfare is definitely on the table, neither the US nor China have an interest in bilateral conflict, especially with the disputes in the South China Sea escalating
Both the US and China clearly understand the other side’s cards from long-term standoffs and negotiations. The problem that lies on the negotiation table is not to reaffirm our differences but instead to manage the disagreements and excess competition to a level where a long-term, sustainable relationship is possible. With China viewing any statements by the US on its sovereignty as threats and confirmations of the latter’s determination to contain China in Asia, and with the US view of China as constant threat to world security, especially with the showcasing of new missiles during a peace parade a few weeks ago, the key to this relationship is not to focus on the many minuses but on the possible pluses. The summit should seek to find common ground but not to reconfirm disagreements. The nations must learn to address each other’s fears and mistrusts, learning that the key to their relationship is cooperation, not competition.
Each nation must understand that viewing the other as a threat to its own world dominance is far from a solution to resolve the increasing tension in this relationship. There will only be losers if the current competition continues. The countries should be aiming for a relationship where there is no defeat, no winning, and no foreseeable end. Managing a sustainable US-China relationship does not require extreme negotiations and concessions, nor does it need commitment on a specific field and open discussions on undesirable topics. The two nations only need to start fostering an atmosphere in which positive negotiation is possible. The main goals of Presidents Obama and Xi should be to signal to their own people and to the world that they are eager to break down the corrosive impressions each country has of each other, and that diplomacy beyond name calling is possible for the nations.
President Xi could show that he is not abandoning the path of openess and reform that China’s former Vice Premier, Deng Xiaoping, started decades ago, by confirming the positive initiatives the US has created to advance China’s development and by acknowledging that the two nations are not targeting each other in terms of trade, intelligence, and recruitment of allies. He could also admit the possible faults China has in terms of human rights and copyright infringements. In doing so, he is signaling not only to American lawmakers but also to American citizens that China is willing improve in accordance with international standards so the two nations can have fruitful collaborations, despite their complicated past. President Obama could deterthe impression that America is trying to contain China in all angles by reaffirming President Xi’s success in dealing with corruption and the increasing transparency of his government. Obama also should continue to maintain a neutral stance on the issues in the South China Sea to prevent bursts of anti-American sentiments in China. In fact, any acknowledgement of Xi’s diplomatic successes will signal to Chinese ordinaries and elites that the US views China as a positive partner for future collaboration.
Although this might appear as lacking any tangible solutions, such change in how the leaders showcase the other nation in their discourse could lead to drastic positive changes in the two nation’s relationship because it fosters an environment where positive collaboration seems possible. A sustainable relationship will not be feasible if the countries continue to insist on dominance over collaboration and continue to demonize each other on the global stage. If Obama and Xi continue to engage rationally, they might be able to turn their relationship onto a sustainable course.