Washington and Beijing should focus on the 'big picture'

Updated: 2013-11-13 00:59

By TREVOR WILLIAMS in Atlanta, Georgia (China Daily)

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As they seek to develop a new model of bilateral ties, China and the United States should lead the way on "big picture" issues rather than dwelling on minor differences, a panel of dignitaries said at the Forum on US-China Relations in Atlanta, Georgia.

They should start with climate change, said former US president Jimmy Carter, for whom the Carter Center, where the event was held on Monday, was named.

If China and the US — the world's two biggest economies and polluters — were able to harmonize their efforts to fight global warming, Europe and the rest of the world would follow, Carter said, citing conversations at a gathering of former world leaders in South Africa last month.

"The entire process of dealing with global warming has broken down, and I think this would be a notable and a noble bilateral commitment for our two presidents, our two foreign ministers," Carter said.

The US and China often find it hard to work together, considering the differences in their environmental challenges, cultures, economic priorities and political systems, added Carter, who presided over the normalization of relations between the US and China in 1978.

"These things are inherent, and they're not going to change," he said. "We can't move one country to another."

He noted that the architect of China's reform and opening-up, Deng Xiaoping, was always cautious about enacting wide-ranging reforms too fast, as evidenced by the downfall of the former Soviet Union. Instead of being frustrated by the pace of change in China, US policymakers should hone in on a few key areas of common interest, Carter said.

President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama pledged to do just that during their meeting in Sunnylands, California, in June, even as they discussed pressing issues such as trade and cybersecurity.

Their momentum has been amplified by talk of economic reforms Xi is expected to introduce at the Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China's 18th Central Committee.

To make sure the US and China can work together to overcome differences and enhance cooperation, leaders must think ahead, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was president Carter's national security adviser, said on the panel.

Domestic issues in both countries could spark simmering nationalistic zeal, threatening the stability of the relationship. In an age characterized by political turmoil caused by society's increasing access to information, the key is working together on issues that go beyond the scope of economic ties, he said.

"We have to strive to infuse increasingly significant strategic content into our relationship," Brzezinski said, citing China's cooperation with the US to promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

These national policy moves must be underpinned by personal relationships fostered through people-to-people exchanges, said Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. She also urged patience in the relationship and a "big picture" view as both countries deal with their priorities.

Carter highlighted the fact that 235,000 Chinese students are now studying in the US, according to figures released this week in the Open Doors report of the Institute of International Education.

"That makes my heart beat a little bit faster, that makes my face flush and makes me feel a little bit proud," the former president said.