Direction of Obama And Xi’s California Talk Unclear

The Obama administration must make stronger efforts not just to “hedge” China but to recognize its core interests while avoiding sensitive issues that fuel resentment, according to a New York Times op-ed by former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and author Ian Bremmer. The piece anticipates an upcoming meeting this weekend between Obama and President Xi, and recommends that Obama win Xi’s trust “by not asking him for things that Beijing can’t provide, like a global partnership to address financial crises, climate change, nuclear proliferation and a host of other issues”. In addition, the authors argue, the U.S. needs to “stop trying to negotiate with the China they want to see and engage China as it is.”

China would happily produce a document that Mr. Xi could brag about at home, while accepting responsibility for only a carefully negotiated set of mutually profitable projects. A new communiqué should therefore include negotiated agreements on the joint development of clean energy technologies, cooperation in scientific research and coordinated strategies to mitigate conflict in the developing world.

It’s not a sign of weakness that Washington can’t force China’s leaders to change course on issues they consider central to their national security. Naming and shaming can be an important foreign policy tool. But China will never change its approach on these core issues because of America’s objections, and we can’t allow criticism to drown out calls for cooperation in other areas.

So Mr. Obama shouldn’t expect much movement on issues like Tibet, territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in the East and South China Seas, and a range of human rights issues. Mr. Obama can commit the United States to a frank approach, one that acknowledges China’s core interests, and where appropriate, allows Washington to act as an honest broker. [Source]

At Brookings, meanwhile, Kenneth Lieberthal emphasizes sensitive topics like cybersecurity and North Korea as the key issues on Obama’s agenda. Lieberthal also cautions Obama to keep China’s perspective on cybersecurity in mind if he raises criticisms during the California Summit:

[…] First, cyber space is so new that there is not even agreement on basic terminology, such as what constitutes a “cyber attack.” Since states have a legal right of response when they are attacked, it is important to reach an understanding of what clears the bar to qualify as a “cyber attack” (e.g., espionage by itself does not, while using cyber tools to produce destructive kinetic outcomes in most cases presumably does).

Second, President Obama needs to be sensitive to the reality that, from a Chinese perspective, the United States nearly owns the cyber arena. America has the most advanced tools and capabilities, and the Chinese political and financial systems largely run on American software. China assumes the U.S. uses that huge capability to its advantage. That is a perception that will be part of the equation in any serious cyber discussion. [Source]

But the opportunity to build chemistry may be at least as important as the direction of policy issues, Lieberthal suggests:

Perhaps the most important purpose of the summit is to enable each leader to develop a serious sense of the other. If it goes well, each will at the conclusion effectively say to himself, “I get that guy. I understand his top priorities, his fears, his political constraints, and how he thinks about the big issues. I think I can do business with him.” Of course, there is a possibility that one or both will conclude that he cannot really “read” or trust the other, in which case the future relationship will also reflect that reality. Personal chemistry between leaders means a lot in major power relations. [Source]