Obama-Xi Summit Meeting: Clearly Progress, Now the Hard Part Starts!

The meeting between President Obama and China’s President Xi in Rancho Mirage in California on June 6th is the start of what will necessarily be a very long series of engagements between China and the United States. We have long had a “dialogue” with China starting with the Henry Kissinger’s secret meetings in the 1970s and their follow ups, for which I was a not involved but observed as one of Kissinger’s “Policy Planners.”

The key judgment then, and it must be now, is that China is a key actor whether some think of it as a major regional or global power. Frankly, it is a “global actor” in my definition given its seat on the Security Council, its nuclear weapons, being the second largest economy, and the size of its population. So the meeting is momentous by any definition.

From all reports the results were more than many expected and constitute clearly a major success for President Obama and also for President Xi. Just having such a deep and longer dialogue than any previously with agreement to continue such summits in the future means both sides acknowledge that “engagement” is better than what some have defined as “strategic competition” or as some have argued “inevitable conflict.” They have also agreed on a “military-to-military dialogue to lessen the possibility of military “mistakes.”

The issue of cyber warfare was addressed and efforts were made to see it as a separate issue from the broader agenda of creating a more cooperative relationship. Yet it too will have to be “solved” or managed over the coming months to underpin the total relationship and goals of stronger economic cooperation.

In the end, the issues are the goals of each country, how we can ascertain common ground on key issues, and where we have divergence how we can contain them as to not create situations that could be disastrous to both sides.

On the long-term agenda must be the recent Obama “Pivot to Asia” policy and its implications not only for China, but for the region as a whole. The other policy will be cyber warfare, which was discussed without apparent resolution. But they must restrain it and especially make clear that continued intrusions and disruptions could put at risk the many common interests both sides have. It has at least been placed on the table by president Obama.

The other “dangers” that may imperil the relationship include China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere, Taiwan, and trade disputes including the scope and impact of the U.S. proposed Pacific trade pact. The meeting was not aimed at immediate solutions but setting a path towards resolution of conflicts.

Not least of the issue is the question of how to deal with North Korea where China has indicated to Obama that it likely shares the view that a nuclear armed North Korea is more an element of security instability than stability. The question is still open as to how far China is willing to go to put pressure on North Korea and whether an agreed joint effort and common goal and strategy can be achieved. This may be the trickiest issue of all at this moment.

The other question that found common ground is that of climate change, since China has now surpassed America as the largest polluter of greenhouse gasses in the world. The agreement on working together to phase out hydrofluorocarbons and to address greenhouse gasses was a win for both sides given the serious pollution problems China faces.

In the end however, the essential goal was achieving a common perspective between the two leaders that conflict between them is now and in the future a disaster for both and that creating a long-term structure of beneficial interdependence, cooperation, and accord is the accepted path forward. President Xi seemed in accord with this perspective when he said, “China and the United States must find a new path, one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past.”

The summit was a good start and there will likely be lots of bumps on the road in the coming years and decades, but we seem on a better path and both sides can be given credit here.

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