Can Obama, Xi Break summit stalemate?
June 4th, 2013
07:25 AM ET

Can Obama, Xi Break summit stalemate?

By Elizabeth Economy, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Economy is C.V. Starr senior fellow and director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are her own.

Presidential summits between the United States and China have become disappointingly predictable.  Before every summit there is a sense of anticipation. What issues will be at the top of the agenda?  What new agreements might be reached? How will the two presidents get along? During the summit, news is scant. There are hints of common purpose, but mostly there are admissions of significant differences. And then, inevitably, there is the post-summit letdown. The issues were the same as always. The leaders didn’t really get along (although no one quite says that). And new agreements were never in the cards.

It is possible for President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping to break this summit stalemate when they meet on June 7 to 8 at the Sunnylands estate in California. To do so, however, will require flipping the summit process on its head. Rather than working toward agreement across all the areas of conflict before them – which after all will take years not days of negotiation – the two presidents need to begin by headlining what in the U.S.-China relationship actually works and then delivering that message to the American and Chinese publics.

It won’t be easy. The record of shared success is slim. Nonetheless, Presidents Xi and Obama could begin by reviewing the thirty years of growing trade and investment that has made the two countries each other’s second largest trading partners. People in the United States have benefited from China’s investment in U.S. treasuries, from low-cost Chinese consumer goods (often for U.S. brands, thereby benefiting U.S. companies and shareholders), and increasingly, albeit slowly, from Chinese investment in the United States and rising U.S. exports to China.

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The Chinese people, in turn, have gained enormously from U.S. investment in their country, as well as the transfer of technology and management know-how.  From there, the two presidents should lay out a path forward for growing the economic relationship, including concrete steps toward a bilateral investment treaty and free trade agreement. Of course, there are serious problems and legitimate gripes on both sides, but the trade and investment story is nonetheless a compelling one, and the best the two presidents have.

There are a few other areas where consensus may be emerging, and if real, Xi and Obama should highlight them during their time at Sunnylands: China’s stance on North Korea has inched closer to that of the United States, Japan, and South Korea; the Chinese have indicated an interest in joining the Transpacific Partnership negotiations, an agreement some Chinese analysts previously described as designed deliberately to exclude Beijing; and there has been a preliminary announcement that China will adopt a hard target for CO2 emissions reduction, something it has refused to consider for more than twenty years.

But there is no sweeping under the carpet all the problems in the U.S.-China relationship – they far outnumber any potential list of wins that could be mustered. Moreover, new areas of friction emerge daily as China asserts its economic and strategic interests in ways that upend the international norms and institutions that have prevailed since World War II. Attempts to promote ideas about a G-2 or “new relationship among the major powers” are therefore premature and should wait until the effort to develop a win-win story becomes more effortless.

Still, if the United States and China are to begin to address the trust deficit that so many commentators in both countries have noted, the two presidents will have to tell their people not only why the relationship matters but also, more importantly, why it works.

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Topics: Barack Obama • China • United States

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Mike

    No China this time. USA are economically not performing well, according to international standards, and should not try the move to do business with Chinese. USA needs refocus its orientation on US friendly markets and US alliances.

    June 4, 2013 at 9:24 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Gee Mike, what a dumb comment yours is. Without China financing a large part of our huge deficit, our economy may well collapse!

      June 4, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Reply
      • Jonquil

        Investing in less than 30% of our debt, is not any kind of dependency - whatsoever. Chinese propaganda is cute, though.

        June 5, 2013 at 8:54 am |
  2. Charleson

    One way China can prove its openess towards the West, would be to give back Hong Kong to Great Britain. That way, the West, would regain its face in the Asian world, and some limited business would be possible again.

    June 4, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
    • Paul

      Hey, go home and read some history before comments on Hong Kong. You'd rather say UK should recover all the torretories it had 200 years ago.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  3. Simon

    If this is true, that US economy would collapse without China, then it needs to collapse. European Union, the West and NATO alliance, want and expect something else from USA. We want western-oriented USA, no China, over there.

    June 5, 2013 at 4:33 am | Reply
    • Jonquil

      That's utterly absurd, but good propaganda. There is no danger of that. How can we be dependent upon a county that holds a massive trade surplus with us?

      June 5, 2013 at 8:53 am | Reply
      • Karl

        Gee Jonquil, aren't you ashamed of your ignorant posts here? I would if I were you! Then again, a lot of people are dumb enough to agree with you, sadly enough!

        June 5, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    It's difficult to predict the outcome of this meeting at Sunnylands. The two leaders try to avoid talking points and instead play by ear.

    June 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Many Chinese believe Obama needs Xi more than the other way round.

      June 5, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  5. xiaofei du

    looking at all this posts, cant believe how ignorant some of the americans are. gg for usa

    June 5, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  6. dd

    Things to discuss:
    -Brad Manning-Wikileak
    -Guantanamo Bay prisoners
    -US Troops in Middle East
    -Illegal Immigrant's human right violation
    -American pedophiles in Caribbean and Asia
    -Texas Independence
    -Native American self-rule

    June 6, 2013 at 12:07 am | Reply
  7. Neale

    This meeting remains one of the significant political events of the decade thus far; it will provide the political echleon of both countries a unique opportunity to greatly enhance a long, though an often tenuous friendship. I think it also highlights China's status as a major power in the international system, and a responsible stake holder in global goverance.

    It also marks an opportunity for President Obama to persuade President Xi Xinping and other senior leaders to achieve greater integration in the international system. Whats more, it opens an opportunity for China's paramount leaderto dismmiss claims by US hawkes that China's rise is anything, but revisionist. I expect good things to eminate from this meeting. The shape of the internationall system in the 21st century remains pivotal on the continual friendship between these two great nation. The purpose of this meeting cannot be derailed by those on either side who desparately remainlockd in the politics of the Cold War era.

    June 13, 2013 at 10:56 am | Reply

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