The U.S.-China Summit: Can Obama and Xi Find Common Ground?

The U.S.-China Summit: Can Obama and Xi Find Common Ground?

A confrontational approach would accomplish nothing and could do lasting damage to the bilateral relationship.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington offers both perils and opportunities for U.S.-China relations.

The principal challenge for Xi and President Obama is to address the areas of disagreement candidly while seeking common ground on those and other important issues.  As a first step in that process, Obama needs to disregard mounting calls from those who advocate a blustering, hardline policy toward Beijing.  A confrontational approach would accomplish nothing and could do lasting damage to the bilateral relationship.

Unfortunately, many of the GOP candidates seeking the presidency are attempting to outdo each other in bashing China. Donald Trump scorns the existing features of the trade relationship and emphasizes that he would drive much harder bargains with Beijing. Carly Fiorina is even broader in her advocacy of confrontation, including wanting to go nose to nose with China over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.  Marco Rubio and now former candidate Scott Walker make Trump and Fiorina look like Sinophiles. Walker urged President Obama to cancel the invitation to Xi.

Obama should tune out such political grandstanding. The relationship with China is far too important to sacrifice on the altar of partisan political posturing.  At the same time, there are important substantive disagreements that need to be addressed at the summit meeting. Chief among them are allegations that Chinese authorities increasingly hack American computer systems. On this point, both sides ought to seek a constructive compromise.

The reality is that major powers engage in systematic espionage, including cyber espionage, and China and the United States are no exceptions. The revelations by both Wikileaks and Edward Snowden show conclusively that Washington spies on adversaries and allies alike.  Consequently, expressing outrage at China’s cyber snooping is more than a little hypocritical.

At the same time, there is a difference between cyber espionage and cyber vandalism. U.S. officials are understandably concerned about indications that Chinese intelligence operatives may be responsible for hacking episodes that seek to disrupt important American computer systems. A disruption of the electric power grid, for example, could take down the financial system, or if it occurred in winter and knocked out residential and commercial heating systems, could cause massive suffering and even loss of life.

Seeking common ground on this issue is important and there was reports just in the last few days of possible progress. Both sides should acknowledge that espionage, including cyber espionage, is part of international politics and is not about to be abandoned. But assurances should be sought and given that government personnel will not be allowed to cross the line into cyber vandalism, and that both governments will, in fact, take affirmative steps to ensure that such conduct will not be tolerated.

Another area of tension that cries out for dialogue and compromise is the worsening controversy over the South China SeaFiorina and others want the United States to defy China’s ambitious territorial claims with displays of U.S. military power. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently urged the U.S. Navy to conduct patrols right up to the 12-mile limit off the various artificial islands that China has been constructing.

Such a confrontational gesture would be most unhelpful.  As the world’s leading maritime power, the United States cannot accept China’s breathtakingly extensive claims in the South China Sea—a body of water through which crucial commercial sea lanes pass. But there is a difference between rejecting such claims diplomatically and engaging in aggressive military displays on China’s doorstep. Instead, Washington should send up a trial balloon indicating that the United States might consider recognizing a scaled-back Chinese territorial claim that did not threaten the integrity of the sea lanes. In the meantime, the United States needs to refrain from engaging in actions that would heighten military tensions in the region.


One final area where greater cooperation is needed is the issue of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Once again, a compromise between Beijing and Washington is both desirable and possible. There have been multiple signs for several years that China’s patience with its North Korean client is wearing thin. President Obama should exploit that situation to propose a bold joint move regarding policy toward North Korea. Since Washington’s longstanding attempt to isolate Pyongyang has not worked, a new approach, similar to the breakthrough to normalize relations with Cuba should be tried. President Obama should indicate to President Xi that the United States is prepared to open a wide-ranging dialogue with North Korea to address not only the nuclear issue but all areas of tension between the two countries.  In exchange, the United States should seek assurances from China that if North Korea then still proves uncooperative and continues to build a nuclear arsenal and threaten its neighbors, China will impose rigorous sanctions against Pyongyang.

Since China provides a majority of North Korea’s food and energy supplies, Beijing is the one power that can truly inflict serious pain on Kim Jong-un’s regime. For various reasons, China has been reluctant to exercise such decisive leverage, especially if the United States remains unwilling to engage Pyongyang in a meaningful manner. If Washington’s policy changes, pressure will mount on Beijing to be more proactive as well. At the least, President Obama should make such a proposal in his meetings with Xi.


President Xi’s state visit comes at a crucial time in the U.S.-China relationship. The talks between the two leaders can amount to little more than ceremonial optics, or even worse, degenerate into an occasion for animosity. But there is also an opportunity for truly constructive, substantive dialogue on a range of important issues. Both sides should clearly make the most of this opportunity.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is the author of 10 books on international affairs, including most recently (with Malou Innocent), Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes (2015).

Image: Flickr/State Department