Editor's Note: Nicholas Burns is GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist. He writes a bimonthly column on the international issues that shape our world.
CAMBRIDGE, Ma. — President Obama’s meeting in California last weekend with the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, could turn out to be one of the most pivotal of his presidency.
Washington and Beijing billed the summit as an opportunity for the two leaders to get to know each other in the relaxed setting of the late Ambassador Walter Annenberg’s Sunnyland estate.
Obama and Xi discussed everything from their respective domestic priorities to a full range of international crises. Former Secretary of State George Shultz used to call this type of engagement, “tending the diplomatic garden." In other words, build up some capital with a key country when the weather is calm as you will surely need to spend it down during the inevitable storms to come.
As global summits go this was unusually productive. Xi and Obama achieved two significant advances.
First, they put the sensitive issue of cyber theft at the top of their agenda.
The large-scale Chinese assault on private sector American intellectual property has long been a major US concern. Until now, the Chinese leadership had been reluctant to engage or have been in outright denial of the problem. But at the Sunnylands summit, Xi and Obama discussed it openly and agreed to make it a permanent concern in their ongoing dialogue. While the problem will likely persist for some time, this was a good start and a promising and unexpected dividend for the US.
Second, the Chinese signaled their clear frustration with North Korea’s impetuous and unreliable young leader, Kim Jong Un.
It was significant that Obama and Xi agreed publicly in California that they were both opposed to the continuation of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. China has long protected Pyongyang but now appears openly concerned by the North’s provocative nuclear and missile tests directed at South Korea and Japan. But if Beijing will now be more serious about joining Washington in pressuring the reclusive North Korean leadership, that will be a significant step forward.
The Obama-Xi meetings did not, of course, resolve the majority of substantive differences between the two countries.
The US and China are locked in a vast and unique web of economic, trade and technological ties. The two countres are each other’s most important economic and financial partner. But, the heart of the US-China paradox is that the two remain outright competitors for power and military strength, particularly in the vital Asia-Pacific region.
For example, the Chinese leadership clearly feels threatened by Obama’s celebrated “pivot” to Asia. The resulting American military build-up with traditional allies Japan, South Korea and Australia — and with a string of new military partners in South East Asia and India — has Beijing worried.
In shifting the majority of US air and naval forces to the Pacific for the first time in American history and in building up key facilities such as Guam’s Anderson Air Force Base, Obama’s pivot looks to China’s increasingly powerful military establishment like a strategy to contain China as a rising power.
From the US perspective, the Obama strategy is meant to preserve the predominant strategic position the US has held in the region since the close of the Second World War. It also seeks to safeguard the interests of the many smaller democratic countries, particularly in South East Asia, which feel threatened by an increasingly assertive and muscular Chinese navy and air force.
But to the Chinese, the American move plays on Beijing's historical fears that the West seeks to limit China’s growth and return to Great Power status. A specific flash point has become China’s aggressive assertion of sovereignty over disputed islands that threaten US ally Japan in the East China Sea and the Philippines, Vietnam and other littoral states in the South China Sea.
Managing the resulting tensions in this contest for power will be perhaps the central challenge of American foreign policy for the next few decades. How can the US do two things at once — preserve its power and protect its friends in the most important part of the world and yet not produce a new Cold War with China or, even worse, risk a hot war that would be catastrophic for both sides?
The Middle East presents an additional challenge. China has often undercut the US strategy of isolating Iran by becoming the largest purchaser of Iranian energy. China has also blocked and vetoed with Russia in the UN Security Council US and European attempts to deal with the increasingly violent Syrian civil war.
But one essential fact is clear. Long separated by the unbridgeable gulfs of the Cold War, the return of a more normal US engagement with China is essential for both countries. This will remain for some time a big, sprawling and complicated relationship. Washington will often find itself at odds with a government in Beijing that denies human and religious rights and seeks to out muscle its friends and allies in Asia.
There is no alternative, however, to engagement with this emerging superpower.
As they move forward, American and Chinese leaders will need to meet in serious discussions much more frequently than they have in the past. They will need to search together for solutions to pressing international problems where China and the US hold the preponderance of influence — on climate change and global trade and financial stability, for instance. They must be honest about the major differences that still separate them and deal with populations deeply suspicious of the other country.
And, ultimately, the rest of the world will benefit if they can find a way to build even a small measure of trust in pursuit of solutions to some of the most pressing international concerns. While a vast distance still separates them in ideology, culture and outlook, Obama and Xi made a consequential first step in a more positive direction last week.
Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.