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.
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.