What Will The Obama-Xi Summit Achieve?

09_11 Xi Jinping Obama China
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama arrive for a group photo at the G20 summit in Brisbane November 15, 2014. An upcoming summit between the two presidents is unlikely to give China the outcomes it wants most, the author writes. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The U.S. media will soon blanket their pages—real and virtual—with commentary on the mid-September visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the United States.

Speculation will mount over whether there will be any significant outcomes from the summit between President Xi and President Obama—perhaps another notch in the climate cooperation belt or some advance in military-to-military relations.

Even more significant for many U.S. China watchers would be an announcement by the Chinese side of a rethink on the draft law on non-governmental organizations. At the very least, there should be positive movement on the bilateral investment treaty, since the two sides will be negotiating right up until the two presidents meet.

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Yet based on what I heard at a U.S.-China dialogue in Beijing over Labor Day weekend, the summit is unlikely to give China the outcomes it wants most, because what it wants the United States is not prepared to give, namely:

  • Recognition of a new international order: Chinese scholars and officials speak often of a new international order. It is unclear what this means exactly except that they believe China is on track to assume a role equal to that of the United States in purveying security and establishing international norms and institutions—in the context of either a bipolar or multipolar world.

For some Chinese, the new international order is reflected in the Chinese proposal for "one belt, one road" in which China is connected to the rest of the world (although not so much to the Americas) through a vast system of Chinese-supported transportation, technology and energy infrastructure. Chinese soft power will also flow through this "one belt, one road."

Others articulate a more clearly bipolar structure of global governance, premised on the idea that the United States and China are the two largest powers in the world. This idea has its roots in the discussions of a "G-2" and a "new relationship among major powers," as well as the belief that the "U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world."

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While the Obama administration is clearly sympathetic to the idea that China's global role and importance are growing and that U.S.-China cooperation can be a very positive force for the broader global system, it has not bought in to the idea that China is a power on par with the United States nor that given some of China's priorities at home or abroad this would necessarily be a good thing at this particular juncture in time.

  • Respect for China's political system: Chinese officials remain concerned that the United States is committed to undermining the country's political system and leadership of the Communist Party. While the United States has no stated or unstated intention of doing so, it is fair to say that the extent to which China's political system should be a focus of U.S. policy is a source of significant debate within the United States.

Certainly all sectors of American society are interested in China moving forward on political reform as defined by greater transparency, the rule of law, and official accountability. These steps serve not only the Chinese government's interest but also the interests of U.S. businesses and other actors deeply engaged in partnership with the Chinese government.

At the same time, many U.S. government officials, as well as the broader American public, as evidenced by the recent Pew poll, would like to see something even more—namely a Chinese government that welcomes diversity of political opinion, a robust civil society and an open media.

Thus, while Americans do not seek to overthrow the Communist Party, many are interested in more substantial Chinese political reform.

  • Acceptance of Chinese security priorities: One of the fastest rising issues on the U.S.-China agenda over the past few years has been the growing security challenge in the East and South China Seas.

Chinese security analysts argue that the United States 1) does not recognize China's legitimate claims to its sovereign territory; 2) always sides with U.S. allies and other partners in the case of disputed territory even when China is doing nothing more than what others have already done; and 3) is either being used by or enabling the malicious behavior of these allies and partners.

While I dismiss claims #1 and #3, I confess that I am sympathetic to claim #2. After all, Beijing is right when it points out that other claimants in the South China Sea have undertaken reef reclamation and that other claimants in the East China Sea have declared air defense identification zones (ADIZ).

The U.S. response to #2 tends to focus on process: China should have quietly discussed its interest in an ADIZ instead of unilaterally declaring it; and the scale and pace of China's reef reclamation far exceeds that undertaken by any other country (and, indeed, that of all countries added together).

This argument, however, does not address the fundamentals of the issue. The more appropriate and effective response is to reiterate the U.S. proposal that the region freeze its reclamation activities and sit down to negotiate a joint code of conduct. Unfortunately, here is where the Chinese side falls down, meeting the proposal with silence or a claim that this is not the business of the United States.

Of course, it is not only that China is not going to get what it wants at the Xi-Obama summit but also that the United States will not get what it wants either, such as a halt to cyberattacks on U.S. businesses and other targets, agreement by China to stop pushing forward on claims in the South China Sea and a revocation of the NGO law.

In the end, the summit will likely deliver no more and no less than other summits—some progress on some issues, hopefully some of it notable. Given the gulf in more fundamental Chinese and American values and priorities, this is not a bad outcome and likely as much as one might hope for.

Elizabeth C. Economy is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

What Will The Obama-Xi Summit Achieve? | Opinion