Obama and Xi

Throughout history, the world's biggest wars have occurred when a rising country challenges an established leading power. In the 21st century the countries that unmistakably fit this mold are China and the U.S. On Friday their leaders, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, will meet for two days in California. Their summit is perhaps the last, best chance for today's major powers to break history's ruinous pattern and lay the foundations for an accommodative peace.

Few officials will admit in public that the stakes are so high. But for all that diplomats talk about cooperation and economic interdependence, China and the U.S. hold dangerously incompatible ideas about who will lead in the Asian Century. The U.S. expects to remain Asia's primary power, perpetuating a U.S.-led order which has long upheld stability. China expects to take America's place, regaining its historic regional pre-eminence.

Recent flashpoints such as cyber-spying and maritime disputes are merely symptoms of this deeper rivalry, not its cause. Focusing on them will therefore achieve little when Messrs. Xi and Obama meet. Instead, the two Presidents must try to reconcile their countries' conflicting ambitions in Asia.

That will require both leaders to first accept that neither country can prevail over the other. Mr. Xi must understand that, mistaken talk of decline aside, the U.S. remains immensely strong and determined to prevent China from dominating Asia. Mr. Obama must acknowledge China's power and its determination to resume its eminence in regional affairs.

From the outset, both leaders must also recognize the dangers of choosing escalation over accommodation. China's economic miracle will falter if the U.S. treats Beijing as an outright adversary, and similarly America's economic future can only be bleak without China. Each state could drive the other to Cold-War levels of defense spending, or even incite outright armed conflict.

For instance, it is quite possible that China and Japan will come to blows over the Senkaku Islands—and it would be almost unthinkable that the U.S. would then discredit its Asian alliances by denying Japan support. Once U.S. forces became involved, the chances that a local clash would escalate to a broader war are very high. Who knows where the threshold would be to nuclear conflict?

Only some kind of mutual accommodation between America and China can avert these dangers. What such an accommodation would look like, and how it can be reached, are the questions Messrs. Xi and Obama should address in California this week.

No one can yet know the exact contours of a deal that would reconcile U.S. and Chinese ambitions in Asia and provide a durable basis for peace. This week Messrs. Xi and Obama can probably do no more than agree that an accommodation is necessary and commit to explore what it might look like. But the essence of such an understanding is clear. Both sides will need to agree to share power as equals.

Even this would be a momentous achievement, and very difficult for both sides.

Mr. Xi has been identified with an assertive foreign policy, and his concept of the "China Dream" clearly implies big ambitions for power in Asia. For Mr. Xi, accommodation means accepting that even as China overtakes the U.S. economically, Washington will continue to balance Beijing's power in Asia and impose limits on its conduct. For example, the U.S. cannot allow China to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors with armed force.

Mr. Obama's 2011 "pivot" to Asia was designed to reassert U.S. leadership against China's challenge. But Beijing has not responded as hoped by quietly retreating.

Accommodation for the U.S. means allowing China to act as a true equal partner in leadership, not merely a responsible stakeholder in an American–led order.

The U.S. will have to accept China's eventual peaceful and consensual reunification with Taiwan, and show a willingness to handle future disputes with much more give-and-take. It must also accept the reality that China's armed forces will become increasingly able to defend China's interests as just as U.S. forces defend America's.

For both leaders these steps would carry immense political risks as well as raise huge questions of policy. In the U.S. especially, many assume that it is unthinkable for a U.S. president to deal with another country as an equal, because Washington has never done so before.

But critics should reflect that the U.S. has never previously encountered a country as powerful as China already is today--let alone as powerful as China may become in the future. And they should reflect that if the U.S. is not willing to treat China as an equal, it must confront it as a rival, with all the deadly risks that entails.

Source: Wall St Journal

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