US-China Summit: Meeting of Minds

The two-day meeting between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will avoid the usual pomp and circumstance in favor of a relatively low-key, informal meeting of the minds between the two leaders. To be held at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, the summit will provide an opportunity for the two to to establish personal relations.

As such, although both men are likely to discuss matters of importance to their respective nations (cyber security and intellectual property rights for the US, and American military presence in the Western Pacific for China), one should not expect this summit to produce anything in the way of grand agreements, or advancements in policy. Rather, this meeting is just that: a meeting, albeit with potentially global consequences.

Bridging Divides

Much like the Geneva Summit of 1985 between President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev, the California summit has the potential to become a first step towards lowering barriers between the US and China, and laying the groundwork for future productive summits.

Free from the pressure and theater often accompanying state summits, Obama and Xi will have the luxury to speak frankly. Instead of using the summit as a chance to tackle matters that are unlikely to be resolved in the near future, never mind those two days, they should focus on building a working relationship with one another. Before issues such as cyber security and intellectual property rights can be addressed, the two leaders must be able to communicate with one another.

If nothing else, the two presidents should work towards establishing lines of communication between their respective offices. Resolving differences will likely fall to good diplomacy, but it will require some greasing of the wheels between Obama and Xi, and perhaps even their successors.

It will be up to the current and future leaders to bridge the divide between the US and China, and this summit could provide an opportunity for the two to lay the foundations to said bridge. As China continues to grow, it will have to learn how to navigate and accommodate American expectations. Conversely, the US must learn how to adapt in a world in which China demands a larger slice of the pie.

Despite the competition between the US and China, however, competition and cooperation is certainly much more favorable than confrontation. Competition between the US and China is and will remain inevitable as the latter seeks to play a larger role on the global stage. Competition, when conducted fairly, is also healthy; and it will be up to Obama and Xi to establish ground rules, or at the very least guidelines, for their successors on how best to compete without confrontation.

Managing relations

The question then becomes one of "when" as opposed to "how" the US and China intends to bridge the divide. When will China be held accountable for its cyber activities against the US? When will American companies be invited to work in China, as opposed to being bought out? And all of this is to say nothing of the increasingly tense maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea (of which the US is not a party to, but China finds itself the center of), or the human rights situation in China.

For Obama, time is of the essence, given that he will have to vacate his office in 2017. Improving, not simply advancing, Sino-US relations would be a legacy Obama would like to leave behind although it is questionable how much he can achieve in the next three and a half years.

Given China's propensity to play the long game and plan for the future, Obama will be hard pressed to deliver on any promises he makes with regards to China.

The Obama Administration cannot tackle everything. Instead, it will have to pick and choose its battles it believes it can win, or at least achieve progress. It will have to tackle issues that will be able to gain diplomatic traction.

As such, something like gaining access to China's markets might receive top priority as opposed to China's cyber security activities, which China will continue to deny no matter how friendly the relationship between the two presidents. Yet, even dealing with something as relatively benign as trade will face an uphill climb, for whatever timeline the White House sets forth, China will likely delay.

For Xi, his hoped-for legacy will be one where he will be remembered as establishing China as equal to the US, and as an influential player on the world stage. This means marching to the beat of its drum, not as an act of defiance against the US but as one of independence. Not one accustomed to being dictated at, particularly when trying to establish itself as a serious presence on the international stage, China will move slowly but surely as it accustomed to doing.

The Obama and future administrations must therefore be patient. Move too quickly and it will find itself frustrated. Move too slowly, however, and the White House might lose sight of its goal. Any grand bargain or agreement to be had from China will not come about until the final hour.

When dealing with China, patience is key. As the summit between Presidents Obama and Xi approaches, observers should not expect the two to break new ground. Success should not and cannot be measured in grand, singular events, but after a culmination of small steps.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)