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]