Jun 03, 2013

    US-China relations need a reboot

    The New York Times

    PRESIDENTS Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will meet in California for two days, starting on Friday.

    It's about time.

    New sources of friction are constantly appearing in the relationship between the United States and China: trade disputes, tension over North Korea, debates over curbing carbon emissions, allegations of cyberattacks by China.

    Having survived re-election, President Obama can shrug off charges of appeasement and treat a rising China with the care it deserves. China, with its leadership transition, has a fresh start too.

    The US and Chinese presidents must seize this opportunity to improve relations; if they don't, there won't be another chance for years.

    Until now, Mr Obama's China policy has been mainly a hedge against China's rise. The administration's "pivot" to Asia - the shift of attention and resources from other regions - has convinced many in Beijing that Washington intends to try to stunt China's growth and contain it, the way that the US sought to halt the spread of Soviet power during the Cold War.

    Hedging should be part of the US' strategy. But hedging without a sincere attempt to start a dialogue risks feeding China's resentment and transforming competition into conflict.

    Cooperation between the US and China is crucial for the future of both countries and the world, and the current policy of damage control isn't enough.

    The US and China are the world's two biggest economies, two largest trading nations and two worst polluters. The US is the world's largest debtor, China its biggest foreign creditor.

    There is no way to rebalance the global economy, slow climate change, manage the trouble kicked up by rogue states and keep the peace in Asia, unless Washington and Beijing work together in as many areas as possible.

    The first step will be for Mr Obama and his representatives to stop trying to negotiate with the China they want to see, and engage China as it is.

    The Chinese won't accept any other approach, and the US doesn't have the power to force them to. China is every bit as exceptionalist as the US, and has been for centuries. It is a country prepared to make, rather than accept, new rules, and one that will compete with the US for Asian and global hegemony.

    It is time for the two presidents to think big. They should begin work on a declaration of principles, a document that can elevate and focus their partnership.

    In 1972, at the end of then president Richard Nixon's historic visit to China, the US and Chinese governments published a remarkable joint communique. It included references to their "different ideologies", individual freedom, trade, Korean reunification, Japan, Taiwan and "progress towards the normalisation of relations in the interests of all countries".

    The document and the conversation it opened stand among the greatest diplomatic achievements of the 20th century.

    Seven years later, a second communique established formal diplomatic relations. A third document, released in 1982, addressed the future of Taiwan.

    Mr Obama can commit the US to a frank approach, one that acknowledges China's core interests and, where appropriate, allows Washington to act as an honest broker.

    In addition, the two sides should form a working group that answers directly to Mr Obama and Mr Xi, and whose primary mandate is to draw each side's red lines in a way that minimises the risk of conflict, particularly on cyber issues.

    Like the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Xi and most of China's leadership recognise the need for perestroika, a restructuring. Unlike Mr Gorbachev, they don't see glasnost, openness, as a means of achieving it - and no amount of sermonising from the US will change that.

    In some ways, the stakes are higher for Mr Obama and Mr Xi than they were for Mr Ronald Reagan and Mr Gorbachev. There is no US-Chinese nuclear threat to focus minds on stronger ties, nor is there a Berlin Wall to separate the two sides' fortunes. For better or for worse, the US and China are bound together in a form of mutually-assured economic destruction.

    That's as good a starting point as any for a partnership whose time has come.

    Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer is the author of Every Nation For Itself: Winners And Losers In A G-Zero World. Mr Jon Huntsman was governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009, and US ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011.