A visit of great potential

Updated: 2012-02-09 08:11

By Kenneth Lieberthal (China Daily)

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Because this year will see a presidential election in the US and a new leadership will take over the helm in China, major breakthroughs in US-China relations are not likely during 2012. Nevertheless, the agenda for Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping's Feb 14-15 visit to Washington will be packed with discussion of important issues at a time when future developments regionally and globally are less predictable than usual.

This is a year of political change throughout Asia, with upcoming elections in the Hong Kong special administrative region, the Republic of Korea and Russia. An election could be held in Japan in 2012, too. In addition, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is experiencing a succession as Kim Jong-un assumes power after his father Kim Jong-il's sudden death in December. Never before have so many key countries in the region faced possible leadership changes during the same 12 months.

Inevitably, national leaders in all these countries are now especially focused on domestic developments and may become pricklier on international issues that have domestic resonance. Great uncertainties over what will happen in Europe and its potential knock-on effects on the global economy add to the questions about major outcomes during 2012.

Xi Jinping's visit takes place three months after US President Barack Obama's November trip to Honolulu and Asia. On that trip Obama affirmed the US' determination to maintain a leadership role in the region over the long term. This has sparked considerable discussions on the potential implications for US-China relations.

While in the US capital, Xi will meet not only with US Vice-President Joe Biden but also with President Obama and key Cabinet secretaries. These meetings will address serious issues from trade to bilateral investment to Iran and nuclear proliferation to security matters within Asia, among others. Each of these issues has both an immediate dimension that will be the focus of attention and the staying power to impact the long-term strategic relationship between the US and China.

Even with this long list of substantive issues, the most significant aspect of Xi's visit is one that is likely to be less visible - that it begins to lay the groundwork for personal mutual understanding between a member of next generation leadership and a US president who might remain in the White House until January 2017. This mutual understanding - the kind of personal stock taking that political leaders value highly - is especially necessary if the US and China are to address successfully the most serious problem dogging the future of their relations, distrust over each side's long-term intentions toward the other.

Some in China look at Obama's November 2011 trip to Asia and see evidence to bolster their suspicion that the US seeks to constrain or even disrupt China's rise. Some in the US look at China's economic and security policies, and see in them an approach that presages efforts to promote America's decline to assure China's rise.

A few hours of face-to-face meetings will not change these underlying suspicions. But they may permit the leaders on each side to begin to gain a personal feel for the sincerity, ways of thinking and genuine concerns of their counterparts. That is a necessary first step toward allaying deep concerns and building trust. Without some level of personal understanding, the chances of both sides' slipping into mutually reinforcing negative assumptions increase greatly.

Given the pressures of domestic politics in both countries, it is not realistic to expect concrete commitments on long-term, controversial issues to be concluded during Xi Jinping's visit. But to lay the groundwork for effective relations in 2013 and beyond, Vice President Xi and his White House hosts should allocate time specifically to discuss how to develop deeper dialogues than the two sides now have on the most critical issues that will strongly impact long-term relations if there is no mutual understanding on them. The two such key issues are:

First, what are the respective military deployments in Asia that will both permit China to protect its vital interests and allow the US to meet its existing security commitments to friends and allies in the region? Failure to increase understanding on this core issue risks mutual escalation in military deployments in the region, ultimately increasing costs and reducing security for both sides.

Second, how can both sides engage to reduce the chances of cyber conflict that escalates rapidly to the point where it produces major damage? Cyberspace is a relatively new domain that has rapidly moved to the center of US-China relations and is greatly damaging mutual trust. It will inevitably require a long time for discussions on this issue to mature. Given the risks, it is time to upgrade the dialogue on this issue.

In sum, this is a period of exceptional change in the Asia-Pacific region, and the US and China are the two most consequential players. They can manage their key short-term problems but need to do a lot of work to improve the chances of maintaining a constructive long-term relationship. Vice President Xi's visit can contribute significantly to laying the groundwork in terms of personal mutual understanding at the highest levels.

Finally, Xi's public appearances can create enduring popular images of him that can make it easier for him to manage US-China relations once he takes over the helm. I remember well Deng Xiaoping's trip to a rodeo in Texas in 1979. When Deng put on a "ten gallon" cowboy hat, he created an image that made him seem far more natural and understandable to the American people. Every media opportunity - especially those when Xi travels far from Washington to the American heartland of Iowa and west coast metropolis of Los Angeles - will be important.

The author is director of the John L. Thornton China Center, and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy and the Global Economy and Development Programs at the Brookings Institution. He served as senior director for Asia on the National Security Council from 1998 to 2000.

(China Daily 02/09/2012 page9)