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Breaking the Summit Stalemate

by Elizabeth C. Economy
June 4, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with China's then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on February 14, 2012. U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with China's then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on February 14, 2012. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

This article first appeared on CNN’s GPS blog.

Presidential summits between the United States and China have become disappointingly predictable. Before every summit there is a sense of anticipation. What issues will be at the top of the agenda? What new agreements might be reached? How will the two presidents get along? During the summit, news is scant. There are hints of common purpose, but mostly there are admissions of significant differences. And then, inevitably, there is the post-summit letdown. The issues were the same as always. The leaders didn’t really get along (although no one quite says that). And new agreements were never in the cards.

It is possible for President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping to break this summit stalemate when they meet on June 7 to 8 at the Sunnylands estate in California. To do so, however, will require flipping the summit process on its head. Rather than working toward agreement across all the areas of conflict before them—which after all will take years not days of negotiation—the two presidents need to begin by headlining what in the U.S.-China relationship actually works and then delivering that message to the American and Chinese publics.

It won’t be easy. The record of shared success is slim. Nonetheless, Presidents Xi and Obama could begin by reviewing the thirty years of growing trade and investment that has made the two countries each other’s second largest trading partners. People in the United States have benefited from China’s investment in U.S. treasuries, from low-cost Chinese consumer goods (often for U.S. brands, thereby benefiting U.S. companies and shareholders), and increasingly, albeit slowly, from Chinese investment in the United States and rising U.S. exports to China.

The Chinese people, in turn, have gained enormously from U.S. investment in their country, as well as the transfer of technology and management know-how. From there, the two presidents should lay out a path forward for growing the economic relationship, including concrete steps toward a bilateral investment treaty and free trade agreement. Of course, there are serious problems and legitimate gripes on both sides, but the trade and investment story is nonetheless a compelling one, and the best the two presidents have.

There are a few other areas where consensus may be emerging, and if real, Xi and Obama should highlight them during their time at Sunnylands: China’s stance on North Korea has inched closer to that of the United States, Japan, and South Korea; the Chinese have indicated an interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, an agreement some Chinese analysts previously described as designed deliberately to exclude Beijing; and there has been a preliminary announcement that China will adopt a hard target for CO2 emissions reduction, something it has refused to consider for more than twenty years.

But there is no sweeping under the carpet all the problems in the U.S.-China relationship—they far outnumber any potential list of wins that could be mustered. Moreover, new areas of friction emerge daily as China asserts its economic and strategic interests in ways that upend the international norms and institutions that have prevailed since World War II. Attempts to promote ideas about a G-2 or “new relationship among the major powers” are therefore premature and should wait until the effort to develop a win-win story becomes more effortless.

Still, if the United States and China are to begin to address the trust deficit that so many commentators in both countries have noted, the two presidents will have to tell their people not only why the relationship matters but also, more importantly, why it works.

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