What Obama and Xi should talk about
June 7th, 2013
07:25 AM ET

What Obama and Xi should talk about

By Zheng Wang, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Zheng Wang is an associate professor in the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University and a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Never Forget National Humiliation. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will have no shortage of opportunities to talk – whether on the sidelines of summits like the G-20 and APEC or during the U.N. General Assembly meeting. U.S. and Chinese leaders have also held relatively frequent summits over the past decade.  During Obama's first term, for example, he and Chinese then-President Hu Jintao met with each other a dozen times. But quantity does not always mean quality in affairs of state, and these meetings have generally been formal, brief, and attended by a roomful of officials. Add in the fact that much time is taken up in translation during these meetings, and it’s easy to see why there is often so little depth in the typically one-hour gatherings that take place between the two leaders.

This week’s meeting between Obama and Xi, though, promises to be different. Scheduled over two days in Sunnylands, California, the two presidents have a special opportunity to learn about each other and the beliefs and ideas that underpin their countries. Will they seize this chance to better understand each other?

U.S.-China ties would certainly benefit from an in-depth conversation, one that could bridge the gaping deficit of trust that currently exists. But trust cannot be built during brief, official meetings. For two individuals to better understand where the other is coming from, including heads of state, then it is important that there is an opportunity to linger over important and revealing conversations. The U.S., at least, has recognized this previously, but Hu is said to have been reluctant to accept such an invitation. Xi, though, seems intent on differentiating himself from his predecessor.

President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, often described as “the week that changed the world,” offers a good example of what can be achieved when leaders are allowed more time together. Prior to Nixon’s visit, the U.S. and China treated each other essentially as enemies. Indeed, even during Nixon’s visit, the streets of Beijing bore anti-American slogans. But what made Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong possible was the careful discussions and groundwork laid by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.  More than a decade later, in 1986, Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang conducted a five-hour one-on-one conversation with former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

More from CNN: Sides must overcome distrust

Fast forward to today, and American and Chinese policy scholars already have proposed a long list of issues that Obama and Xi should discuss during their meeting, from cyber security to North Korea to the South China Sea disputes. But I suggest something different – the two leaders should talk about their countries’ worldviews, histories, and philosophies. They should talk about where they are coming from and where they want to go as a country. Perhaps Xi can clarify what his “Chinese Dream” represents, while Obama can explain American political philosophy to Xi. Many misunderstandings between the two countries stem from suspicion of strategies and intentions. Simply discussing issues on an individual basis won’t give either leader the same kind of strategic understanding of the other’s worldview.

Of course, it isn’t easy to build trust between two superpowers that have such large structural, cultural, and political differences; misunderstandings are inevitable. There are, for example, going to be times when one side believes it is simply being straightforward in its opinions, while the other will view them as disrespectful. Indirect responses from one side, meanwhile, can often be viewed as insincere by the other.

Complicating this is the home country context. The United States and China have different political systems and government structures, yet the media in both countries inevitably see the actions of the other through the lens of their own values.

And there is also deep suspicion – and a tendency to indulge conspiracy theories – among the publics in both countries. Many Chinese, for example, believe that the United States has a sophisticated plan to contain China’s rise, while some in the U.S. believe that China is intent on replacing America as the global hegemon. Discussing individual policies and gripes would do little to ease such tensions, even if the two had a whole week to talk. But by trying to understand the other’s identity, culture and worldview, some of these significant problems might start to seem more manageable.

Much of the commentary you will read over the next few days will be about trust. But if the two sides are to build confidence, they first need to feel that the other side is trustworthy, and that can only happen when they understand each other better. It’s true that in-depth conversation cannot solve all problems – many issues between the United States and China are structural in nature, and cannot be resolved simply by building personal trust. But having a more nuanced understanding about why the other side might be doing something will lead to better judged responses. And surely a good personal relationship means there will be better channels of communication.

All this means that this week’s meeting should not necessarily be judged on whether grand policy statements are made. Instead, a measure of success moving forward will be whether each leader feels he can trust the other. Short meetings may be more convenient for two busy leaders, but more meetings like those at Sunnylands are much more likely to change the tone – and ultimately substance – of the conversation between these two nations.

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Topics: Asia • China • United States

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Not to oversimplify here, but I am pretty sure China wants to see an expanding global economy.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:04 am | Reply
    • alex lee

      So does USA

      June 7, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  2. DW

    Spying , North Korea and Pollution need to be discussed.

    June 7, 2013 at 11:48 am | Reply
    • larry Tan

      discussions are cheap. achieving solutions is fleeting

      June 7, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  3. Alience

    china is a good country,chinese love peace!

    June 8, 2013 at 6:39 am | Reply
    • Muslim

      Everyone loves peace except the US.

      June 8, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Reply
      • surwook

        hey you are so extreme

        June 10, 2013 at 2:20 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    On his first trip abroad as president, Xi was in Moscow last March and had impressed Putin with his knowledge in Russian literature. Obama should ask Xi, what he thinks of Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson etc. They could talk about ancient Greek philosophy or Chinese Confucism.

    June 8, 2013 at 8:12 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      Xi asked Oba Mao (the guy who thinks he is as great as Mao) this question: "Why is your azz hacked and your chery stolen so easily?". Oba Mao said: "actually, it's not the Chinese, it is the senators who've been fisting it and caused it to be so loose."

      June 8, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Reply
    • Junky Pimp

      Perhaps a throw down game of Mahjong between Obama and Susan Rice, and Xi and his advisor?

      June 8, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  5. jeff forsythe

    I personally believe that if the naive American Government was aware of the heinous nature of the brutal Chinese Communist Party, they would not breathe the same air as Mr. Xi. I am not kidding. I practice Falun Gong, a heart and mind cultivation practice with tens of millions of adherents , from all walks of life, most of whom dwell in Red China. The Chinese Falun Gong have been persecuted by the cruel CCP since 1999 when the then paranoid leader declared a genocide of all Falun Gong, believing them to be a political threat which they never were. This attempted genocide uses torture, slavery, organ harvesting and murder. Just the other day a CCP doctor confessed to removing the cornea from one hundred living children, leaving them blind , which were later sold to rich Westerners and CCP members. The torture and murders and slave camps are countless. It is time for all Westerners to cease the corporate greed that is stopping their good hearts from putting an end to these atrocities. Just my understanding, thank you for your consideration.

    June 8, 2013 at 9:49 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      Please don't lie! What you really are practicing is kwok zucking and that is exactly why you are full of kum.

      June 8, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Reply
    • flash321

      I agree with you Jeff. The internal policies of China are bloody and evil. The foreign policies are also bloody and evil. In Darfur, and Syria, the Chinese are showing you the true face of a festering Communist disease. Maybe some people are fooled, but I am not. How can they even show their faces in public?

      June 10, 2013 at 5:58 am | Reply
  6. Jonathan

    Really think they should talk about the environment and examine how their free market policies are not working. As well as the other issues mentioned here. The environment is of course the most important since you can't have an economy without it, or any life at all.

    June 8, 2013 at 11:16 am | Reply
  7. Pete

    What I gathered from CCTV is that US engages in the material economy Pure Capitalism and China in solid relations of Socialism. It coincides with earlier article on the intersection between Pure Capitalism and Socialism, the only stable point of economic certainty. With its social market, China can survive, but with a linear material market, USA needs China.
    BTW, Socialism involves with family, communities, cultures, arts of society, while Pure Capitalism is the material end in itself. As a result, China could become a little materialistic, and USA could become a little socialism. And that should establish the ground for a new trend, the Intersection.

    June 8, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  8. Roland

    I don't trust China. Be careful in dealing with them. Look what it was doing with the Philippine territories and it's neighbors.

    June 8, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  9. Jason Smith


    June 8, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  10. Jason Smith

    hello why is truth being censored this is third or fourth attempt only "hello" got published .. too near to th etruth and heat!

    June 8, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  11. Jason Smith

    I will do this in batches so there is no confusion ...

    June 8, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  12. Jason Smith

    Know the PLOY

    Ping … ping … ping … coming OUT from China out … Trillions of PINGS per microsecond! We don’t know who’s doin’ it! They say and in the SAME breath say – Who’s got the guts to nuke us for it …
    ONE p i n g inside China all HE LL breaks loose and next moment … F@!*N H@*!L … WE got the F!*K#R !!! and he/she is in jail.
    HOW in all the HE LL can they pull this RABBIT and the wool over our eyes … we the bozos?!
    REMEDY … WELL START buying 70% only home and domestic products! 15% from Europe 10% from other ASIAN countries and 5% from China! BINGO!
    HERE COMES THE NEW SUMMIT PLOY … defuse by running over to “SUMMIT” (ah – “submit” but NOT!) and BOOST HIGH LEVL more data gathering … (Lighted Buttons … Political WILL … endless MANNA from Heaven of INFORMATION for the General Of the – the War Machine unleashed already!)

    June 8, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Reply
    • mJS

      FIRST PLOY … the world is a BOZOFIED play field for them at every so simple turn – courtesy of the SHAM WTO card they deftly whipped out from the world’s civilized pack of cards with (FALSE Maoistic Guerila tactic) PROMISES “signed” (meaningless) and the world is enamored by the dry ink on that “paper” while the “REAL” damage is occurring worldwide!
      The ANSWER? EVERY COUNTRY harmed and ASSAULTED should lodge a “Citizens” Complaint at the United Nations so that “Bought out” Politicians or putty feet or petrified politicians can have no say!

      June 8, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  13. Sensei

    OK I give up CNN chinese sensors are hard at work and will not let the comment be in full and cutting off my next comments

    June 8, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  14. Roland

    Tell China : Go back to China!!

    June 8, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      And "Trash" like you should remove yourself from the native American land and go back to an incinerator and not to be recycled.

      June 8, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Reply
      • Roland


        Now now where's CNN censor when you need them ?....:-)

        June 8, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
  15. Rolloff

    They should compare notes on how to effectively spy on citizens internet activity while allowing terrorists a free ride

    June 8, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  16. Roland

    Chinese spies and hackers were probably in the states already.


    June 9, 2013 at 12:12 am | Reply
  17. henry zhong

    I didn't read the news, and i don't much care what has been dicussed. All I know is that China with its so called new administration is on th path to hell. The people in that country are being foced to change their human basic instnic to Devil ... I am chinese, I love my country. But if there ever is war between USA and China. I will be sure on duty for aamerica.

    June 9, 2013 at 1:34 am | Reply
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    June 21, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Reply

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