Just over forty years ago, then U.S. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger visited China and met with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. The meeting transformed the global balance of power, forged a mutually-acceptable formulation to Taiwan’s status and began the process that led to the normalizing of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S.
The quartet also discussed a wide range of substantive international security issues, including the Vietnam War, the Sino-Soviet border tensions (the U.S. provided intelligence briefings), Japan’s role in East Asia, as well as relations with India and Pakistan and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Both sides made important commitments on points of shared outlook while each carefully explained their opposition where areas of disagreement existed between the two sides. Fortunately, American and Chinese policymakers from all ranks now regularly engage in diplomatic contacts which include economic, cultural, and military exchanges; as a result, little of consequence occurs at summits themselves these days.
Nevertheless, such meetings do offer the opportunity to build interpersonal relationships, showcase bilateral ties for domestic consumption in either country and provide a few moments to politely raise issues of mutual concern. The summit between President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama from June 7-8 in Rancho Mirage, California, thus follows the pattern of latter-day. It is a testament to the maturity of the relationship between the two that nothing newsworthy is likely to come from the weekend’s offerings; but that also makes it a bit boring. Much of the international press has focused on Peng Liyuan, the glamorous wife of President Xi who gained notoriety in China singing folk songs for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Likewise, Michelle Obama attracts attention with her fashion choices and physique. Xi’s 2012 American visit helped China’s public diplomacy when he reunited with old colleagues in Iowa and attended an NBA game; this summit affords another moment to address misperceptions in the West about both China’s leadership style and ambitions and the country’s promotion of its soft power. Of course, some important strategic issues will certainly be on the agenda when the two presidents meet.
The security situation in Northeast Asia remains riveted by DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un’s recent provocative statements and China is the only country in the world with the capacity to reign in the young leader. This summit should ultimately produce a commitment by the United States to rejoin the Six Party talks and, more importantly, a statement by China that it will strongly encourage the DPRK’s participation in the talks, which should have as their goal the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Sino-U.S. relations are already in harmony on this issue; what has been missing is leverage to gain the DPRK’s acquiescence to its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and multiple UN Security Council Resolutions. We should not overestimate China’s influence, as the DPRK walks its own path, but President Xi can demonstrate clear leadership by using historical ties and economic influence to gain assurances from the DPRK.
In 1972, then Premier Zhou told President Nixon that Taiwan is the crucial question; all other issues can be solved easily. The first part of his assertion remains true, but other challenges are growing in complexity. Another area of regional concern that President Xi and President Obama will surely discuss is the ongoing disputes over territorial claims to islands and overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the East and South China Seas.
At the 1972 meeting, Nixon defended the U.S. military presence in the Pacific directly with Zhou while returning administrative control over the Diaoyu islands back to Japan along with Okinawa. At that time, Zhou feared renewed Japanese expansion. Today, President Obama may once again articulate the benefits of America’s military presence in the Pacific, which mitigates the need for Japan, South Korea or India to advance their naval power to protect commercial and strategic interests. Nearby, China claims much of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and core national interest and is expanding its capacity to defend these claims; the United States and its allies in the region oppose many of these efforts.
Not only will these tensions not be resolved at the summit, they are likely to become areas of greater confrontation in the future as China seeks to fortify its position in the region and the United States attempts to slow its advance. The United States will likely raise the issue of cyber-espionage, along with a host of economic considerations over currency values, trade policy and foreign investment.
Despite these areas of difference, this will not be the time for the United States to scold or lecture. Since the 1954 Geneva Conference, where U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles infamously declined to shake hands with then Foreign Minister Zhou, China has sought to be treated equally, with respect, both for its ancient civilization and resumption of global power and influence.
Just this year, Premier Li Keqiang called for equality, trust, tolerance, cooperation and common prosperity in Sino-U.S. relations. President Xi continues this long trajectory to build China’s economic and military power so that it will be on an equal footing with other leading powers, chiefly the United States. In 1972, Zhou deferred on a global role, explaining that China had little to say about the Middle East because it had no stake there. After Xi’s three nation tour of Latin America, no one doubts China’s international relevance. As Xi and Obama meet, we see the transformation that began under Nixon, whereby China was asked to voice its opinion and indeed participate in decision-making on the global issues of the day.
The value of this summit is watching China become a global stakeholder that can help solve international problems. Sino-U.S. relations are secure, so no transformative moment is necessary. Although realpolitik will prevail in the defense arena, Sino-U.S. ties will develop and expand on other fronts. Perhaps the United States will even invite China to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The author is an Associate Professor of Department of Government, California State University, Sacramento, USA.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.