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Can Obama, Xi find common ground?
June 7, 2013, 3:34 am

In 1907, US President Teddy Roosevelt signaled the arrival of the US as as world power by sending the “Great White Fleet” in a grand gesture to the globe it circumnavigated. It was a little premature: the ships were obsolescent and relied on the kindness of strangers to refuel but it did mark Washington’s aspirations to put truth in the rumours about the Monroe Doctrine.

Similarly, Xi Jinping’s grand tour, which begins in California and a meeting with US President Barack Obama on June 7, is a debut rather than a consolidation.

It is, perhaps wisely, more economic in its theme, brandishing investments rather than waving big sticks.

While modern financial and trading networks need not follow the consolidated marine and land boundaries of previous rising empires, Xi’s triumphal progress through America’s backyard – the Caribbean and Mexico – demonstrates how much more effectively powerful China’s economic success is than the Soviet weaponry had been. “The China Dream,” is Xi’s rallying cry of a China with a seat at the top table.

It will be interesting to note the progress, with small indicators like the almost certain relaxation of Chinese regulations that restrict imports of Mexico’s Tequila because of methanol levels. A few extra Chinese hangovers is a small price to pay for an economic beachhead right on the Rio Grande.

It is fascinating to watch the interplay between the aspirant and receding superpowers and it is reassuring that both sides are obviously thinking seriously, and not necessarily reflexively about it.

When Richard Nixon went to China, apart from recognition of the previous pariah state’s future potential, at least part of  the White House motive was counterbalancing the Soviet Union. President Xi’s tour of the America epitomizes a renewed appreciation on both sides, but above all of China as a potential counterweight to the US itself. A less confident US is relinquishing the xenophobia, or more specifically Sinophobia, that previously greeted Chinese investment interests.

Across the US, job-hungry local governments yearn for the Yuan to come in and do what their own bankers are refusing to do – invest locally.

The times, they’re a-changing

Previous ups and downs of the great powers have been marked by major conflagrations, and we can be grateful that the demotion of the Soviet Union was relatively peaceful. Two decades ago, it would have been difficult to believe that the US of Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars and the New American Century fame would have been quite so polite to its most likely supplanter.

Two decades ago, even Japan was viewed with a jaundiced eye as it surged close to overtaking the US economically, even though militarily it was no threat, and indeed, was almost a US protectorate. The costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taxed US power even as it outspends the rest of the world militarily.

But the relationship between China and the US is unique. While there is very real rivalry as they both compete for the same space at the top of the table, it is like a Puerto Rican knife fight with the combatants tied by the wrists to each other. The US needs China, which, after all, has financed Washington’s wars with its purchase of US dollars. Conversely, China needs the US. Beijing can neither forgo those reserves deposited in its rivals’ Treasury vaults and needs its markets to fuel the growth of its economy.

Xi knows that the secret of continuing Communist Party of China (CPC) power in the face of potential domestic dissatisfaction is the growing prosperity that keeping US consumers happy brings.

However, China is developing military potential along with its economic success and the friction over disputed islands around the China Sea is worrying. The scenario of a rising uppity power confronting one that is relatively getting weaker, is all the more worrying when we consider that network of alliances and defence commitments that the US has across the region. China has interests and claims in an area where the US is far from home but has ties made in former days of glory.

Pulling treaty triggers

There has been rising tension over disputed islands in the China Sea [Xinhua]

There has been rising tension over disputed islands in the China Sea [Xinhua]

In 1914, we saw what happened as a result of those treaty triggers being pulled, and in the South China Sea, US commitments to Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines could drag the US into a local conflict with China where the latter has its forces concentrated.

The US, of course, is still in imperial overstretch mode, with bases and commitments worldwide. At home, the American public has strictly limited enthusiasm for wars for far-away countries of which, after all, it knows amazingly little.

Conservatives have set up a shopping lists of what Obama should demand of Xi, on economic reforms, currency policy, government etc. Obama is more sophisticated than many of his predecessors – and of course economic circumstances have weakened his hand. He is, one hopes, not going to be crass in his demands of China.

One assumes that Obama would realize just how counterproductive it would be for the US, whose economic model has never looked so dodgy, to lecture China, for whom a growth rate four or five times the US’s, seems to be overstretched in its own right. He will also understand that Xi has his own domestic politics to worry about.

The Communist Party has pretty much abandoned the dialectic of the class struggle, and the glue that holds it together is the nationalism of an oft-humiliated civilization.

So the talks are an opportunity for quiet dialogue and a development of rapport between the two leaders. Beijing might offer magnanimous compromises or exit routes on many of the maritime border issues, for example, but would certainly bridle at any ultimata. But the US is hardly in a position to brandish ultimata.

Room for compromise

In the case of Taiwan, for example, the administration’s efforts are more about stopping Taipei tickling the dragon than building up a prickly defence. The long obfuscation of Congressional efforts to sell F-16s to Taipei shows successive presidents’ deference to Beijing’s sensibilities, which on the face of it is illogical appeasement. The planes are only of use if China attacks – no one seriously expects Taiwan to attack the mainland, after all. But Washington has to take account of the importance of the island in China’s inner party rivalries.

There is room for compromise. If we consider, for example, North Korea as China’s Israel, an embarrassing but ineradicable ally, it would frame the limits of what Washington could reasonably expect China to do in a low key way. Xi can no more disown Kim Jong-un publicly than Obama can repudiate Netanyahu, but there are important gestures available.

Obama could pledge, for example, that US forces would withdraw from the Korean Peninsula in the wake of any re-unification, thus avoiding the triumphalistic mistakes in Europe that still fuel Russian resentment.

In fact, there is another model the two might adopt. Britain and the US were similar rivals and partners, tied as much by financial chains as any alleged common bonds of culture and language.

The US facilitated the decline of its erstwhile rival, moving from debtor to creditor – and, it might be added, doing its best to stab its ally in the back financially even as they fought together. But it has not approached military tensions since the British burnt the White House in 1814.

Of course, unless the Tea Party triumphs and splits the US into autonomous fragments, the US is never going to decline as precipitately as Britain shorn of empire, but it is possible for a rising China to be partners with a still powerful, although relatively declining America.

It would appear that Xi and the Chinese are prepared for this.

In terms of domestic politics, Japan is the foreign scapegoat up front while the US is relatively benign in China’s image.

Similarly, China benefits in the US from not being the Soviet Union and also the  main trading partner, an object of admiration and emulation.

Xi and Obama might be the two right people in the right place to make the mutually respectful links needed – and these talks will demonstrate that, one way or another.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.