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Xi to Obama: Make Room for China's Rise


The upcoming summit between China’s new president Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama in California could be consequential, if stage-setting reports in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are to be believed. Xi believes that relations between the two countries are at a “critical crossroads” and that it is time to explore “a new type of great power relationship.” What does this mean, exactly? Analysts interviewed by the New York Times, offer some disquieting insights:

It is a given, Chinese and American analysts say, that Mr. Xi and his advisers are referring to the historical problem of what happens when an established power and a rising power confront each other. The analysts said the Chinese were well aware of the example of the Peloponnesian War, which was caused, according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, by the fear that a powerful Athens instilled in Sparta.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University and an occasional adviser to the Chinese government, offered some ideas of what Mr. Xi has in mind.

“He wants the American president to recognize that China is dramatically rising in military and economic ways, and he wants the president to know that he is active in world diplomacy,” Mr. Shi said. “If the American president recognizes all of these things, then Xi can be nicer, nicer in his definition, in a very tense situation.”

The article goes on to suggest that Xi sees his turn against North Korea as a “gift” to the United States, for which he expects the US to back off on supporting Japan, especially as pertains to its claims on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

The hard-line policy toward Japan has a larger goal, Mr. Shi said. Mr. Xi “is looking for more strategic space in the western part of the Pacific, so that American strategic weapons will not be able to pass through the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea,” Mr. Shi said. “He won’t say this specifically at the meeting with the American president. He will say it in broader, more ambiguous language.”

Comparisons to the Peloponnesian war are not reassuring; in the world of Thucydides, great powers are motivated by fear, and they are inexorably drawn to conflict. It also suggests that naive chatter about friendship is not the best way to handle these conversations. Some testing and probing on both sides is to be expected, and the US side needs to be firm and direct.

The US needs to remind China that this is not just a matter of bilateral relations. China is not the only rising nation in East Asia. The suggestion that the US should take China’s shift to a more critical posture toward North Korea as a gift makes little sense. While welcoming the realism of China’s new understanding of the North Korea problem, President Obama should remind President Xi that China is reassessing that relationship for reasons of its own. The US does not owe a debt here.

The big goal for the upcoming meeting must be to do everything possible to maintain and develop good relations with China without letting China drive a wedge between the US and its Asian allies. It’s going to require some very deft diplomacy.

[Tom Donilon meets Xi Jinping ahead of summit, photo courtesy Getty Images]

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  • Luke Lea

    We may have to reassess our no-strings-attached trading policy with China, which made her economic and military rise possible. We created this 800 lbs gorilla and now we are going to have to learn how to live with it. The corporations gained, everyone else may turn out to be losers. In the final analysis South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan are going to have to be responsible for their own security. We can’t risk war to save everybody’s bacon. The American Empire is a flawed concept. Instead we should cooperate with our European allies to establish international norms by making trade conditional on real democratic reform.

    • rheddles

      What were America’s leaders thinking? How much money they would make.

      When objective history is finally written it will be amazing how much, yet how little, Arab and Chinese money was spent bribing Americans to such great effect. Ask Bernie Saunders.

      The American Empire is more accurately described as the American Hegemony. It has presided over the greatest expansion of human welfare in history. It will not end soon unless we choose to abandon it.

      Short of a war, the WTO will not be disestablished. Therefore, we should double production of Virginia class subs to assure that there is no war.

      Time is not on China’s side. That is part of why they are getting pushy. They sense their relative power is approaching its zenith. We have to get through the next two decades without war and then China will be too old and single sonned to risk war.

      • Luke Lea

        I agree with that on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. But this is Wednesday.

  • Anthony

    “Some testing and probing on both sides is to be expected….. It’s going to require some very deft diplomacy.” To what end WRM given reality of rising China.

  • stevewfromford

    Lets see. We need “deft diplomacy” we have Obama! We are screwed.

  • Jim__L

    The Russians are striking it rich, diplomatically, by playing on this administration’s fears (and inadequacies) re: the Syrian conflict, because we are cutting our defense budget. China’s hoping to get its share, too.

    Make no mistake. The root cause here is the fact that America’s defense spending is being reduced to fund domestic spending. It is only the weakening of the US that is allowing badly-run countries like Russia and China to feel like they are advancing.

    We need to turn that trend around — restore defense spending to the level that it can actually serve as a deterrent to China and Russia, and reduce our domestic obligations so that we can keep up our defense spending.

    If people want money from the government, they can provide goods and services in exchange for it.

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