When the leaders of China and the U.S. meet in Washington on Thursday, they’ll face a host of disputes. They’ll also confront the possibility this might be as good as things are going to get between their countries for a while.
Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will hold one of their last encounters as heads of state on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit. The meeting comes amid tensions over a range of issues including cyberspying, monetary policy and control of vital shipping lanes through the South China Sea.
It also comes against the backdrop of a raucous U.S. presidential campaign in which the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have signaled a tougher approach to China, attacking the country on trade and human rights. With the election more than seven months away, Obama and Xi will likely focus their last tete-e-tetes on firming up mechanisms to manage future conflicts between the world’s two largest economies rather than resolving current ones.
“We shouldn’t expect the meeting to make important progress and lead the relationship to blossom,” said Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Center on American Studies in Beijing and a foreign policy adviser to China’s cabinet. “Relations will just swirl into more negativity over the next two years because of the U.S. election.”
The looming U.S. leadership change may give the presidential meeting an air of finality, similar to Xi’s summit with Taiwan’s departing China-friendly leader, Ma Ying-jeou, in November. It’s a chance to reaffirm successes, such as the negotiation of a global plan to combat climate change in December, while preventing problems from getting worse.
The countries face a basket of issues as their economies grow more intertwined — representing $621 billion in total trade in 2014 — while their companies and militaries come into greater competition across the globe. In the past three months, ties have been strained by North Korea’s nuclear bomb and rocket tests, military deployments in the South China Sea and the threat of U.S. sanctions against Chinese telecommunications equipment maker ZTE Corp. over accusations of illegal business dealings with Iran.
Xi arrived at Joint Base Andrews outside the U.S. capital Wednesday, after a three-day visit to the Czech Republic. Conversations would be frank and touch on the nuclear deal with Iran and instability in Afghanistan, as well as cybersecurity and North Korea, one U.S. official said.
“We don’t paper over these differences,” said Dan Kritenbrink, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian Affairs. “We don’t hide them. We don’t pull punches in addressing them.”
Obama’s successor will have to navigate a maze of mutual and competing interests that Tao Wenzhao, a senior researcher of American studies at the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, calls the “new normal,” borrowing Xi’s phrase for China’s desired state of slower, steadier growth.
“The new normal for China-U.S. relations is for the two to have more cooperation, but at the same time increasing friction over trade and their competing security presence in Asia,” Tao said. “Not only Obama’s administration, but the next president will have to accommodate the reawakened and rapidly growing Chinese behemoth.”
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye are also in town for the biannual nonproliferation summit, allowing for broader talks on ways to compel Kim Jong Un back to talks over his nuclear weapons program. While U.S. pressure helped secure China’s support recently for the toughest-ever sanctions against North Korea, the measures rely on enforcement by the regime’s neighbor and longtime benefactor.
“This is one where there shouldn’t be the barriers that we see on other issues,” Victor Cha, a senior adviser focusing on Asia for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told reporters this week. “Hopefully, it sets an important trend for the future in terms of better bilateral as well as regional cooperation.”
Obama may follow-up on an agreement reached during Xi’s White House visit in September to refrain from cyber-attacks aimed at raiding intellectual property from companies. Xi may seek reassurances that Obama considers both China and longtime U.S. arms recipient Taiwan part of “one China” as Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party officially supports independence, prepares to become the island’s president in May.
Any breakthroughs to help quiet the dispute over the South China Sea, where the two countries are jockeying for strategic control, will be more elusive. Each side has accused the other of militarizing the area, with China placing weapons on reclaimed reefs and the U.S. sending warships to assert freedom of navigation rights.
Obama will press Xi for a commitment not to militarize its outposts there and to seek peaceful resolution of disputes over its claims to more than 80 percent of one of the world’s busiest waterways, said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to Obama.
Xi has been a student of Sino-U.S. relations since before he took power in November 2012. In a meeting early that year with people including Hank Paulson, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Xi particularly sought answers to one question: How should two global powers develop relations?
The people suggested to Xi that he shouldn’t waste his time with ineffective talks and repetitive state visit ceremonies, but communicate with his U.S. counterpart as much as possible, according to a person with knowledge of the meetings. Xi has had more than a dozen exchanges with Obama over the past three years, from calls to face-to-face meetings.
“China and the U.S. will have to work together in global affairs, but given the ideological conflicts between the two, the competition can only grow sharper,” said Tao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(Updates with Xi’s arrival in seventh paragraph.)
–With assistance from Toluse Olorunnipa and Justin Sink To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Keith Zhai in Beijing at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Davis at email@example.com, Brendan Scott, Rosalind Mathieson
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