The summit meeting between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama underway in Southern California offers an opportunity to recast the often fraught Sino-US relationship as one that is on balance mostly constructive. Conversely, if the two presidents are acting too combative or suspicious, not even sunny California can prevent Asia and the world from fretting about the future of US-China ties. The United States is an established power seeking to preserve and consolidate global rules it helped to write; China is a rising power seeking to rewrite the rules in keeping with its shifting perceptions of its global standing. Competition is inevitable in this context, but conflict can be avoided through greater cooperation, strategic restraint and mutual reassurance—leading to coexistence, however uneasy at times. Chinese military officials have openly stated their belief that the Obama administration’s rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific is aimed at containing China’s rise, while U.S. leaders question the need for China’s annual double-digit increases in military spending if it remains committed to peaceful development. The two leaders are hopefully engaging in some frank, great-power discourse, even if that talk makes the other side feel uncomfortable; after all, glossing over fundamentally conflicting interests or issues is not much of a basis for a stronger relationship. To ameliorate this distrust, it is important to address the least developed dimension of Sino-US relations: strategic and political-military issues that could produce an arms race or conflict.
This is presumably the first of perhaps a dozen summit meetings between Obama and Xi. While atmospherics and tone-setting may trump substance, this initial sounding-out summit should frame the critical agenda for the next four years with regard to the direction of Sino-American relations. Key areas for strategic reassurance and potential cooperation are outlined below. North Korea’s relentless progress toward fielding a nuclear-tipped missile capability, proliferation activities with Iran, and belligerent brinkmanship under untested dynastic heir Kim Jong Un demand a concerted response from every power in Northeast Asia, but most especially the United States and China. While relying on China to curb Pyongyang’s transgressions has not been particularly fruitful in the past, the recent provocations are creating new opportunities for US-China cooperation on a harder-edged approach to the North’s aggression. Whether or not China signs up to it, a hard-nosed approach will require sustained US-China-South Korea trilateral military dialogues and habits of communication, to prevent accidental escalation with China in the event that the US and South Korea must respond forcefully to a North Korean provocation. Although it would be surprising if any such military arrangements were announced publicly, Xi and Obama are very likely talking them over in California.
North Korea should be sweating this summit. Efforts must also be made to address maritime security, a second area ripe for strategic reassurance. Maritime security is a shared interest for a region so reliant on freedom of navigation in the global commons and with so much at risk from miscalculation or accident on the seas. The last year has seen a palpable rise in tensions over longstanding maritime disputes in which China is viewed as acting increasingly expansive in its claims and assertive in its actions, beginning with the effective seizure of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in April 2012. Any durable solution must include multilater frameworks that enable peaceful advancement of claims and obviate coercion. While firmly supporting such long-term dispute resolution, the United States should meanwhile engage China on military mechanisms that can prevent crises and mitigate the risk of escalation when incidents occur. This issue has never been more salient, given China’s protracted dispute with close U.S. ally Japan over the Senkaku Islands, where there have already been several close calls between Chinese and Japanese government vessels and airplanes operating in close proximity. Friendly nations do not lock on their fire-control radars on the naval vessels of neighbors.
Strategic trust, however nebulous, needs to be built. China’s participation in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific exercise hosted by the US Navy is a good start; additional types of practical engagement hopefully being raised on the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands would further set a positive precedent for the region. President Obama is almost certainly using this tete-a-tete to address why cybersecurity is creating so much tension. President Xi knows this, if only because of recent complaints from other senior U.S. officials, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and outgoing National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. China has stubbornly rejected mounting evidence that state-affiliated and particularly military hackers have engaged in rampant theft of trade data and intellectual property from the US government and American companies, including of sensitive weapons designs. The two countries have already agreed to hold regular, high-level dialogues on corporate espionage, but President Obama should insist on concrete behavioral changes in the short term and a durable framework of rules and norms in the long term. Regarding the military use of offensive cyber operations, opening discussion on an agreement to “fence off” sabotage of civilian infrastructure with cyber weapons would be a salutary step. While any such pledge might be inherently incredible, it would make cyber attacks even more escalatory and introduce extra reputational costs, thus deterring the use of these relatively ill-understood weapons.
The two leaders should also exchange views on strategic weapons, including nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defense (BMD), and space capabilities. US deployment of extra BMD assets both on the West Coast and forward in Asia to counter the nuclear threat from North Korea provokes Chinese fears that its strategic deterrent is being undermined. Similarly, some in Washington’s security community see China’s rapidly advancing civilian space program as cover for developing military anti-satellite capabilities. Nuclear war, however unlikely, remains the greatest existential threat to both nations, while collateral damage from a space arms race could threaten the communications infrastructure on which the global economy depends. Arms control agreements like those negotiated between America and the Soviet Union may be infeasible now, but initiating dialogues that promote strategic trust between civilian and military leadership can help forestall dangerous arms racing and miscalculation. Although all of these key issues are ready for cooperation and require the building of strategic and military trust, hopes for meaningful achievement on military cooperation at this summit should be tempered. For one thing, the two leaders have many other issues to discuss, from trade and economics to political issues surrounding maritime disputes. More generally, trust is a highly perishable commodity.
President Xi’s priority is undoubtedly positive atmospherics that suggest a negotiation between equals, which will shore up the Chinese Communist Party’s stability that remains the leadership’s chief concern. While President Obama must wish to see some tangible outcome from the weekend, for political and objective strategic reasons, he knows that summits are not the place to both start and end discussions. Historically speaking, rather, agreements issued at summit meetings represent the hard-earned achievement of lower-level diplomacy over time. The twin needs to show tangible progress and yet approach binding accords methodically suggest that summit cooperation is likely focusing on process, on new elements of a multi-faceted great power dialogue and engagement. Sustained, consequential engagement on these issues is critical, lest strategic distrust and competitive dynamics overwhelm shared economic interests with disastrous consequences for China, the United States, and the world. While trust alone is not sufficient to guide great-power relations, practical measures to temper unnecessary competition are the most realistic and feasible means available to the two leaders.