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A New Relationship for China and the United States

SOURCE: AP/Susan Walsh

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in Washington on February 14, 2012. Obama and Xi, now Chinese president, face weighty issues when they meet at a private estate in California this month.

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Despite remaining somewhat in the background, the world’s most important bilateral relationship continues to move forward. In recent weeks, unrest in the Middle East related to the tragic ongoing civil war in Syria and to Iran’s nuclear program, as well as domestic disputes over the budget and presidential judicial appointees, have understandably grabbed the majority of U.S. headlines. The announcement that President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet for the first time since Xi became China’s leader is a positive sign that the two sides are ready to earnestly address some of the numerous issues they face together. Even as other events and pressing issues steal the spotlight, the meeting remains truly significant on a global scale.

Though the choice of venue—Sunnylands Estate in Rancho Mirage, California, just outside of Los Angeles—may seem more appropriate as a vacation spot than for this meeting of the minds, it is actually an indication that both sides are taking this visit very seriously. It allows the two leaders to avoid the pomp and formality of state visits to Beijing or Washington, D.C., so they can focus on advancing the relationship.

The two sides will not be at a loss for discussion topics; everything should be on the table. China and the United States have stakes in problematic security issues at both the global and regional level.

Regionally, China seems to be taking a harder line on North Korea’s recent provocative behavior—by implementing financial sanctions for the first time, for instance—which opens up the possibility for real cooperation between the United States and China on reversing Pyongyang’s accelerating nuclear program. At the same time, island disputes between China and various countries in the South China and East China Seas should be a topic of discussion, not only because the disputes involve a number of U.S. allies but also because the United States wants to maintain open access in those international waters.

The cybersecurity issue must also be discussed in a forthright and open manner without the two sides talking past one another as they have in the past. While President Obama should continue to press his case that Chinese cyberspying has advanced beyond normal intelligence gathering and into outright corporate espionage, he should also listen to China’s own concerns and find areas where the two can cooperate, such as countering cyberpiracy. Most importantly, however, the cybersecurity issue must be a part of the constructive developments in the military-to-military relationship, which should be built upon and expanded.

As the two largest economies in the world, economic issues such as trade disputes and intellectual-property rights are, of course, also fertile grounds for discussion. And as the world’s two biggest energy consumers and greenhouse gas emitters, energy and climate cooperation could certainly be on the agenda as well, though these issues will likely feature more prominently at the July Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting than at this presidential summit.

The previous time President Xi visited the United States in February 2012, then-Vice President Xi advanced the idea of building a “New Style Great Power Relationship” between the United States and China. Since that visit the idea has gained increasing attention largely from the Chinese side, although President Obama and other high-level U.S. officials have said positive things as well. Given the history of great power relationships and conflicts, the idea of a new kind of relationship between the two countries is worth pursuing. Both sides recognize that violent conflict is simply not an option in today’s global environment because of how dependent each country is on the other.

But while President Xi’s proposal is a sign that China is serious about avoiding such a conflict, the Chinese have mostly presented the idea in terms of what the United States can do for China, not what each country can do for the relationship. President Obama should use this California meeting to lay out what China can do for the world at large. As China’s influence continues to grow with its economy, the country needs to step up and play a constructive and responsible role on the world stage without hiding behind the excuse of still being a developing country.

More than 41 years ago, when Henry Kissinger and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai were preparing to announce that President Richard Nixon would be visiting China the following year, Prime Minister Zhou said the announcement would “shake the world.” Back then cooperation between the two countries was unthinkable; now, on a wide range of world and regional issues, cooperation between the two is unavoidable. This does not mean that agreement will come on every issue or that a two-day meeting will come anywhere close to solving the more intractable sticking points. But the past has shown that these presidential meetings can play a large role in pushing the bilateral relationship forward. The Sunnylands summit is therefore an important opportunity for both sides to talk honestly and frankly with one another, determine areas of mutual agreement, and help rebuild some of the trust that has frayed a bit in recent years.

Rudy deLeon is the Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Robert Roche is a trustee for the Center for American Progress.

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