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What Should Obama and Xi Say to Each Other at APEC?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Next week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing (November 5-11) between Presidents Xi Jinping, Barack Obama, and other leaders from around the world, is billed as the Chinese capital's highest-profile international event since the 2008 Olympics. Local law enforcement have warned people they face arrest for wearing Halloween costumes on the subway as it may cause crowds to gather and create "trouble." Hopes are high that the leaders of the world's two largest economies won't scare each other off.—The Editors

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Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama should talk frankly about a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues just as they did before.

They should certainly talk about differences and disagreements, and try to manage and control them in a more effective way. They should not expect those differences, such as the one over historical territorial disputes, to be resolved quickly.

While Xi and Obama should be frank with each other and even blunt with each other, the overall message out of their dialogue—to their people and to the world—should be a positive one to demonstrate that they are working closely together on important issues, rather than being bogged down in differences.

This means that their arguments over differences need to be kept private and not broadcast through a loudspeaker. Loudspeaker diplomacy in the past year has destroyed much of the good mood created at Sunnylands.

So in a sense, it is not what Xi and Obama talk to each other about in Beijing, it’s more about how careful the two leaders and their senior officials should be when talking about bilateral relations in public.

Since many of the differences won’t go away anytime soon, China and the U.S. should focus more on expanding cooperation. And when cooperation expands, it will help the two to manage and control their differences. On the other hand, when leaders are obsessed with disagreements, it will greatly weaken their ability to expand cooperation.

On many issues, China and the U.S. share vast common interests, but their approaches are often different, such as in how to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East, where China’s interests have grown. It requires the two nations to accommodate each other’s differences while maximizing cooperation.

The growing military-to-military exchange, for example, is a direct result of Sunnylands. It has become an unexpected bright spot in the relationship. It’s a good example of how the two countries could expand cooperation despite the restrictions imposed by the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act.

Another example might be if Xi and Obama could direct their teams to speed up the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) talks and wind it up in two years time, it would inject a huge positive momentum to the bilateral relationship.

Tensions over the maritime territorial disputes in East- and South China seas have been the most troublesome for the relationship in the past year. It requires great skills for the two nations to protect their own interests while listening to the other’s concerns. There should be a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, rather than shouting at and humiliating each other in public.

Recent Chinese leaders have been more careful in their criticism of the U.S. On the other hand, U.S. leaders, who may be careful not to criticize America's allies publicly, often change tack when it comes to China, such as calling it a free-rider on national TV.

In a word, the two leaders and their senior officials should learn how to talk about the relationship in public. They should never use inflammatory language in public toward the other. Instead, they should repeatedly send a positive message about the overall relationship.

Before President Obama meets President Xi next week he should ask himself two simple questions. What is his aim in developing America’s relations with China? And what is Xi’s aim? Until now Obama’s answers to these questions have been clear. His aim has been to preserve the status quo of U.S. leadership in Asia. And he has assumed that Xi will accept this.

But Xi does not accept it. Indeed U.S.-China relations have deteriorated sharply over the past few years precisely because Beijing has a very different vision of the two countries’ future relationship and their respective roles in Asia. As Xi so often says, he wants a ‘new model of great power relations,’ which means he no longer accepts the old model represented by the status quo. He wants a new order in which China plays at least an equal leadership role with America, and perhaps more.

Until now Obama and his team have refused to take Xi’s ambitions seriously. They have assumed that China could be persuaded to step back from challenging U.S. leadership, if the U.S. plainly signaled that it was determined to resist any challenge. The ‘Pivot’ was intended to send that signal.

Unfortunately it is now clear that this hasn’t worked. China hasn’t backed off. Instead it has stepped up, by escalating confrontations at sea in the Western Pacific, launching new diplomatic initiatives like the AIIB, and toughening its position on issues like cyber-security. Beijing has been trying to show Washington that it is at least as determined to change the regional order in Asia as America is to preserve it.

At Sunnylands last year Obama was still trying to pretend this wasn’t happening. He focused on a range of specific concerns, but assumed that these could be addressed within the old status quo. He therefore refused to engage with Xi about what a new model of relations might look like. Xi, for his part, refused to engage over Obama’s specific concerns until his wider questions about the shape of the future relationship were addressed. Hence their summit failed.

So now, as he prepares to meet Xi again, Obama has to consider whether to change tack. Should he start taking China’s challenge to U.S. leadership in Asia seriously? And if so, does it make sense for him to rethink America’s aims? If sticking to his present aim of preserving the status quo will only lead to escalating rivalry with an increasingly formidable adversary, some change of approach might be worth considering. That needn’t mean conceding all of China’s demands, but it would mean being willing to explore what a ‘new model’ of relations might look like.

I think that’s the message the President Obama should aim to convey to President Xi when they meet. And what should Xi be willing to say? He should unambiguously commit China to accepting, in any new regional order, a continuing strong role for the U.S., and respect for core norms of international conduct.

This might sound a like a lot to expect of the two men, and it is. But consider the alternative, and remember what’s at stake. Unless each is willing to take this kind of step towards the other, the most probable future between the U.S. and China is escalating strategic rivalry and increased risk of conflict.

President Xi Jinping and President Obama will touch upon a wide range of issues, global and bilateral. They should talk in particular about the following topics:

1. President Xi Jinping and President Obama should reaffirm their determination to build a new model of big power relationship, characterized by no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. This means that China and the United States will continue their cooperation and do whatever they can to avoid a Thucydides trap. Their consensus on the new model of big power relationship created a good precedent. Never in the human history was there such a consensus between an established power and a rising power. It is indeed historical and will have huge beneficial impact not only on their bilateral relationship, but also on the peace, stability and prosperity of the world.

2. There are two opposite approaches with regard to international relations. One is a collaborative approach, based on economic interdependence and necessity for the mankind to join hands to meet common challenges. The other is the confrontational approach, based on the zero-sum game mentality and on the need for interest groups to fan conflicts, confrontation and regional wars, because they can gain enormous benefits from the confrontation.

President Xi Jinping and President Obama should stick to the collaborative approach, which represents the hope of mankind in the 21st century.

3. President Xi Jinping and President Obama should join hands to promote the FTA for growth and connectivity in the Asia Pacific region. This region remains the most dynamic and vibrant region in the world economy. The FTA and growth and connectivity in the Asia Pacific will give a strong push to the economic development in the region, which will benefit the entire international community.

4. President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama should point out that the Ebola crisis poses a daunting challenge for the international community and requires a global response. The International community should join hands to express solidarity with African people in their fight against Ebola.

5. They should find ways and means to strengthen their cooperation to deal with hot spots issues, such as terrorism, Afghanistan, and North Korea.

6. It is quite natural that the United States and China should have differences on a series of issues. The two leaders need to find ways to gain control of those differences and not let them stand in the way of cooperation.

7. The two leaders are expected to give instructions to their respective negotiating teams to speed up and conclude negotiations on BIT within next two years. A China-U.S. BIT will contribute enormously to bilateral investment cooperation and bring this cooperation to a higher level for the benefit of both the Chinese and American people.

8. The presidents have to make clear that they’re ready to make the best use of the next two years to develop good collaborative relationship between China and the United States, which will be an important part of President Obama’s political legacy and will open up a bright prospect for the further development of China-U.S. relationship. That will be good news not only for the two countries, but also for all APEC members and the rest of the world.

After the APEC summit, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will sit down for their first sustained bilateral meeting in almost a year and a half. In the mean time, broad and deep contact between the two governments has teed up a variety of bilateral initiatives, and we can expect some strong, optimistic announcements on climate change, bilateral investment treaty negotiations, and global security cooperation. At their summit, the presidents should commit to frequent, direct dialogue through the end of Obama’s presidency, fulfilling the promise of their meeting at Sunnylands and building a durable strategic understanding that will outlast Obama’s time in office.

It is clear that both leaders truly believe their countries share an overriding interest in avoiding strategic rivalry. Xi and Obama should start by recognizing some facts. First, the rise of China is an important factor in changing global power dynamics, and this effect can’t be stopped or “contained.” Second, the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific promotes stability, and U.S. commitment to global norms and the security of its allies will not evaporate. Third, despite deep economic integration and strong common interests in peace and prosperity, a dangerous dynamic of political and military competition between China and the United States and U.S. allies is now evident in the region.

From this starting point, Obama and Xi should celebrate the significant cooperative efforts their teams have developed in recent years, reaffirm their common interest in avoiding strategic rivalry, and then get to work on the hard stuff. Mutual suspicion has been rising in Washington and Beijing, and Xi and Obama need to confront this head-on with blunt discussions about interests, concerns, plans, and pressures. If they can improve personal understanding, the presidents can orient each government’s pursuit of national goals in a way that minimizes friction and misunderstanding as the two countries and the rest of the world evolve together in the coming decades. This challenging work will require real imagination and offer no triumphant headlines, but it is nonetheless what both peoples need.