The U.S.-China Summit: 10 Questions for President Xi Jinping

From security to the economy to human rights, China is increasingly acting as a destabilizing force in global affairs. Here are some questions President Obama needs to ask. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Washington on Thursday for two days of 21 gun salutes, state dinners, and fervent assertions of Sino-American cooperation and goodwill. But beyond the rhetoric, China's recent behavior across an array of policy areas has been the most openly antagonistic to American interests and values than at any time in at least a generation.

China has unilaterally sought to change the status quo in the South China Sea by creating nearly 3,000 acres of artificial formations and making baseless assertions of sovereignty in the surrounding waters and airspace. Just this week, the Pentagon reported that another U.S. plane was nearly hit during an overly aggressive encounter with Chinese interceptors in international airspace, directly contravening the intent of a 2014 memorandum of understanding on unplanned encounters at sea and in the air. By the year's end, China is expected to deploy a ballistic missile submarine carrying nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States. Meanwhile, the hacking of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the personal information of millions of U.S. government employees has focused renewed attention on the threat of Chinese cyber espionage.

Far too often in recent years, foreign policy experts have counseled to avoid speaking candidly with Chinese leaders in fear of somehow offending them or making relations worse. The Obama Administration seems to have taken this advice to heart. But despite this conciliatory tone, the competitive aspects of Sino-American relations have become even more pronounced as its military capability and capacity relentlessly grow. A strong bilateral relationship capable of withstanding the ups and downs of international politics is one based on mutual candor and respect for shared international norms. Therefore, I offer the following questions that President Obama should ask President Xi during this week's visit:

1. In 2013, China, pushing against the norms of nation-state behavior, unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. The United States and its allies rejected this illegitimate declaration, and the U.S. promptly flew military aircraft through the designated zone. Will China continue this destabilizing behavior and declare a similar ADIZ in the South China Sea, as many observers have speculated in recent months?

2. President Xi, China's behavior in numerous territorial disputes, including the East and South China Seas, has violated the spirit of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which China is a signatory. While the United States has not ratified this treaty, the U.S. Navy strictly adheres to its principles. Does China's failure to abide by an international treaty to which it is a party undermine the rule of law and established international norms? Will China abide by UNCLOS arbitration and peacefully resolve territorial claims in the South China Seas?

3. Hawkish Chinese military leaders have spoken about a long-term naval presence from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, despite Beijing's long-standing claim that it is focused on national defense and not interested in bases overseas. Does this public discussion of broader naval deployment signal a shift in China's defense priorities?

4. The status quo in the Taiwan Strait is the existence of two legitimate governments. One, the Republic of China (Taiwan), is a liberal democracy. The other, the People’s Republic of China, is an autocracy under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Applying your One Country, Two Systems narrative to U.S.-Taiwan relations, how can you claim the right to represent 23 million people on Taiwan who enjoy popular sovereignty?

5. Chinese leaders have spoken of their desire to play a constructive role in global affairs, what former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick termed a "responsible stakeholder.” If that is Beijing's goal, will China begin using its leverage to positively resolve thorny global issues like Iran, Syria, and North Korea, or will it continue serving as the friend-of-last-resort for those rogue regimes?

Pages