This version was written at the request of New America Media.
China’s president Xi Jinping will be visiting the U.S. later this month. He will be in Washington for his first formal state visit. A lot could be riding on this summit between President Obama and Xi, or not at all. Much will depend on how Obama chooses to orchestrate the proceedings.
China’s ambassador Cui Tiankai has been diligently speaking and writing about Xi’s visit as part of the effort to tee up the high profile event. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor even made a special trip to Beijing to meet with Xi as part of the preparation for the upcoming visit. Rice expressed hope for achieving a “milestone” in the bilateral relations as an outcome of the summit to come.
Obviously, both sides appreciate the importance of the summit with respect to the U.S. China relationship and the importance of the bilateral relations to ensuring a stable world.
The pomp surrounding the ceremonial state visit won’t likely remind anyone of the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics. However, the substance to come out of the Washington summit could be unprecedented and make history if Obama were up to making the necessary bold moves.
Since Obama began his presidency, his contribution to world peace and stability has, to put it mildly, fallen far short of what’s expected of a Nobel Peace prize recipient—a premature award at the beginning of his presidency that merely serves to remind us of his foreign policy stumbles. Destabilized Libya, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine and emergence of ISIS, along with Afghanistan and Iraq as festering canker sores, are all taking place under his watch.
Lately, based on his initiative to normalize relations with Cuba and strike a nuclear accord with Iran, Obama seems finally willing to take independent action over conventional thinking. It’s possible that leaving a more positive legacy to his presidency now commands a far higher priority than getting along with his critics. If so, his actions toward China could make a material difference in how history will view his presidency.
Heretofore his policy with China has been on par with his other foreign policy forays, namely a few ups but many more downs. His inviting Xi in 2013 to an informal summit in Sunnylands could have laid a foundation for a string of collaborations but the opportunity was frittered away by a subsequent series of highly publicized accusations and confrontations.
He is in danger of becoming the first president since Nixon visited China to leave the bilateral relations in a worse shape than when he found it.
With Xi’s state visit, Obama has the opportunity to dramatically rectify the trajectory and significantly improve the bilateral relations, perhaps to even claim achieving the milestone hoped for by Rice.
Xi has steadfastly asserted that China has no desire to be a rival much less an adversary of the U.S., but up to now Obama and Washington have insisted on treating China as a potential enemy.
Thus, the first gesture of reconciliation Obama can take is to tell Xi that he will stop flying surveillance flights off the coast of China. Both sides understand that the surveillance flights have largely been symbolic trappings of the aggressive prerogative of a super power. His offer to stop the flights will be a big boost to building mutual confidence and give Xi a lot of face when he goes back to China.
Next, the highest priority in Xi’s agenda is to complete his anti-corruption drive at home and he has been frustrated by the relative ease corrupt officials have in fleeing to the U.S. By offering to stop admitting Chinese fugitives and help apprehend those already in the U.S., Obama would be providing enormous assistance to Xi. At the same time, Obama can take a principled stand that America is not a safe haven for crooked officials.
When Xi announced the formation of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the “one belt, one road” economic initiative, Obama committed an embarrassing gaff by telling the world not to join the bank. Only Japan listened while 57 other countries including America’s closest allies--among them Australia, South Korea and U.K.--became founding member nations. On the occasion of the summit, Obama should congratulate Xi for his vision and offer to cooperate in the economic development of Asia.
The aforementioned three initiatives are well within Obama’s power to render at the summit meeting and each of them will make a positive impression on Xi and lessen the strain in the bilateral relationship. Even more dramatic and within Obama’s authority is to propose to Xi that China and the U.S. along with S. Korea begin to explore steps that would denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
Up to now six party talks have gotten nowhere because North Korea knows China cannot let its regime implode. As matters stand, while China could welcome the unification of the two Koreas, China could not stand having American military presence in the north. Therefore, if Obama were willing to withdraw American troops from Korea, the North would no longer be able to hold China hostage.
Beijing and Seoul get along as well as Seoul with Washington. Once the three parties see eye to eye on dealing with the North, Pyongyang will either have to moderate their belligerent posture or face real prospects of a regime change.
In untying the Gordian knot that has been North Korea, Obama will have accomplished something that has eluded all seven of U.S. presidents that preceded him. He will be able to claim a spectacular foreign policy win and leave a legacy of his presidency worthy of a Nobel Peace prize laureate. Moreover, he will finally set a course for collaboration instead of confrontation between China and the U.S.