Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Xi’s state visit gives Obama an opportunity to make history

For myriad of reasons, I have written several commentaries on Xi Jinxing's state visit. This version appeared in China-US Focus and repeated in Asia Times.

China’s president Xi Jinping is coming to the U.S. next month. He has been here before but this time he is coming as head of state for an official state visit. Aside from a great show of pomp and color to beam back for the home TV audience, what else can he accomplish as his prize for coming?

Shortly after Xi became China’s paramount leader, he accepted President Obama’s invitation for an informal summit meeting in a bucolic southern California estate. He must have thought that getting to know Obama on a personal basis would be an important step to building a closer bilateral relationship. From the outset, Xi has placed a closer working relationship with the U.S. among his highest priorities.

When Obama visited Beijing last November, besides a red carpet treatment, he and Xi made two joint surprising announcements. One was an accord to control the emission of green house gases and the other was to issue ten-year, multiple entry visas to citizens of the other country. The multi-entry visa has already resulted in a significant increase of Chinese tourists to the U.S. and a substantial boost to the local economy. Control of green house gases has been one of Obama’s major initiatives that he could now check off as mission in process of being accomplished.

He got tangible results and should feel good about his trip to China. This time, what tangible outcomes Xi will get out of his visit to the U.S. is very much up to Obama.

From the beginning of Obama’s administration to now, America’s relationship with China has been more down than up. For every 100,000 strong initiative to encourage American students to study in China, there have been befuddled gestures contrary to building a friendlier relationship. One of the strangest was to vocally opposed the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. For that Obama got a well-deserved rebuff from the community of nations that overrode his concerns.

For most of his administration, Obama’s foreign policy followed the disastrous course left by his predecessor combined with his desire to offend the least number of his Congressional critics. Lately, however, Obama appears to be conducting more independent measures of foreign policy (note as examples, Cuba and Iran), more according to what he thinks is proper and perhaps with an eye to building his presidential legacy.

Now with Xi’s visit, Obama has a chance to make a positive course correction on America’s most important international relations.

Surely leaving America’s relationship with China worse off, despite the efforts of the seven presidents that preceded him, would only tarnish and not contribute to his legacy. If Obama is receptive to taking actions that would significantly improve relationship with China, I have some suggestions.

First, Obama can visibly stop treating China as an adversary of America. To that end, he should order the military to stop surveillance flights off the coast of China. He won’t be giving up anything that can’t be obtained by satellite. (Let his successor resume those flights in some future date, if that’s what he/she wants.) The main effect of those flights has been as a psychological irritant and the public relations impact of halting the flights would be huge—a small gesture that would give Xi a lot of face back home.

Second, Obama can offer to help Xi’s anti-corruption campaign by making it difficult for corrupt officials to hide in the U.S. In so doing, Obama would be rendering valuable assistance essential for Xi to complete the most important task on his agenda. At the same time, Obama would put America on the moral high ground and be able to tell the world that America does not coddle criminals and fugitives from other countries. Heretofore allowing crooked officials to run loose in America is hardly what the Statue of Liberty’s welcome of immigrants stands for.

Third, Obama should take the opportunity of this summit to reverse his awful and awkward position relative to Xi’s pet projects, namely, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank alongside his silk-road initiatives. Obama should openly applaud Xi for his vision and pledge enthusiastic support and willingness to co-invest and work alongside China in Asia. Xi most likely won’t think of how to take up Obama’s offer but nonetheless his gesture would be warmly appreciated. His message of goodwill would be noted around the world.

The above three initiatives are easy for Obama to implement and can contribute a lot to bringing the two countries closer together. There is yet a fourth initiative that Obama could put on the table with chutzpah and panache on the occasion of his private meeting with Xi, and that would be to propose working on denuclearizing Korea.

Obama can see that South Korea president Park will be in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. North Korea’s Kim is not invited. Arguably China gets along with South Korea as well as the U.S. The three parties, sitting on the same side of the table, can begin the serious discussion that would neutralize future threats from the North. It would take serious efforts from all the parties over time, and Obama can seize a statesman’s initiative by proposing to Xi to let the three parties begin the process.

Solving the Korea conundrum would be a spectacular exclamation mark of his legacy, an accomplishment that has eluded all the presidents that preceded him. His mere willingness to suggest taking on a risky and delicate project would build confidence and mutual trust with Xi and could lead to successful collaboration on many other fronts.

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