China and the United States After Sunnylands

A good, robust relationship requires many meetings.

Prior to last weekend’s U.S.-Chinese presidential summit, Washington engaged in weeks of guesswork. What would Barack Obama and Xi Jinping discuss at this informal meeting at the Sunnylands estate in California? Then there were debates about the optics of such an affair. Why was Xi’s wife there while Michelle Obama was absent? Now there will be days and weeks of dissecting what statements made by Xi may mean: “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China.” Some will pontificate about the significance of what was not discussed just as much as what was said. This won’t produce much insight.

First, we should acknowledge that the two leaders coming together is an incredibly positive development. The possibility that this sort of meeting would be put on hold until September 2013, during the G20 in Russia, seemed troubling, even preposterous. China presents both immense challenges and opportunities for the United States and is one of the most important relationships to get right. The summit served to reinforce this fact.

But those who hoped that Presidents Obama and Xi would walk away from these talks having achieved a deeper sense of trust and understanding—one that would trickle down into a variety of facets of the relationship—were disappointed. One meeting, no matter how successful, is hardly enough. Relationships that can handle differences must be established and nurtured at many levels. The complexity and contradictions in the relationship between the United States and China requires absolute candor and clarity in all U.S. efforts across Asia, not simply in the U.S.-Chinese bilateral relationship. Yet candor and clarity do not necessarily equate to trust—at least not yet.

The nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Palmerston is sometimes cited to reinforce an important point about the United States and China: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This may be critical to understanding the relationship: Washington and Beijing are at a crossroads and when it comes down to it, their “permanent interests” just may not align.

All is not lost. At the moment, the United States and China actually do share a range of common interests that are a good foundation upon which to strengthen their relationship. Both countries need robust and mutually beneficial economic interactions, a dynamic global marketplace, secure energy sources and a stable Asia-Pacific region. Yet these common interests do not ensure that the relationship will be smooth sailing. What it does suggest is that the United States and China need to have as many positive conversations and cooperative programs as possible to provide a proper context for disagreements that may arise. U.S. policy toward China should seek to manage differences while building on common interests.

To that end, more opportunities for these two leaders to engage directly and take ownership at the highest levels will buttress these efforts. After all, as some have pointed out already, this summit was “the first time in over forty years that the leaders of two such consequential and different powers have sat down for a ‘blue sky’ discussion. The last was between then Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong and then U.S. president Richard Nixon in 1972.”

There will undoubtedly be “scorecards” of the meeting, and these will mostly be determined by progress on near-term topical issues such as cybersecurity, North Korea, maritime disputes and others. Our Twitter-friendly, soundbite culture will not be scoring the more subjective areas of context building or relationship building, but those should become the most important elements. More than anything else, the U.S.-Chinese relationship requires leaders to have a long-term, strategic vision. At the moment, much of the interaction between the two countries is not truly strategic. Most discussions are of a near-term tactical or operational nature that doesn’t allow for the development of a “big objective” to guide the relationship. This makes it increasingly difficult to assess what the two countries are working toward.

The two sides need to ask larger questions: What is bringing us together now? Can we work together to achieve some visionary goals? Without addressing these areas, policymakers will continue to revert to the headlines of the day, which though important, will not move the relationship forward.

Bobby Flay’s lobster tamales and porterhouse steaks have been eaten. But the question of what was accomplished this weekend still remains. It seems more obvious that there needs to be real reciprocity in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, as well as a recognition that many differences are not resolvable in the short term. Each side may need to adjust or reevaluate aspects of policy that the other party deems provocative.

The Sunnylands summit may be an important first step in infusing the relationship with a new strategic dimension. Yet holding the meeting and having discussions is not the end, but an initial move that may enable the development of greater understanding. We need sustained strategic engagement. Without it this will become another missed opportunity. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

Wallace C. Gregson, Lieutenant General (USMC, Ret.) is senior director, China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest. A. Greer Meisels is New Asia Initiatives associate at the Wilson Center and adjunct fellow at the Center for the National Interest.