China and the United States are still in a position to master their national destiny. The transnational financial markets, the fluctuations of oil, gas or food prices and the constraints of a multi-polar geopolitical order exert an impact on their economies, but do not command their policies. In a globalizing world, they act while the others react.
The vital importance of their bilateral relations is obvious. While Chinese President Xi Jinping's predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, made their first trip to the United States several years after they became China's top leaders, U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed his new Chinese counterpart only three months after Beijing's power change.
The two statesmen find themselves at a historic juncture, either a rising rivalry fueled by populist sentiments or the quest for a new paradigm, which would accommodate the redistribution of world power, either fear and the perspective of conflict or an effort of construction to protect against the follies of war.
The two most powerful men on the planet did not meet in a political capital, but at Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate in the Californian desert. They did not have to prepare negotiations, but a two-day retreat conducive to in-depth exchanges of ideas and to positive interpersonal chemistry—the intangible, but essential component of world politics.
North Korea, relations between China and its neighbors in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, cyber security, Iran, Syria, the Middle East, Central Asia, the effects of the 2008 economic crisis and climate change are the issues that occupied the attention of the statesmen, but, in the long term, what really matters is to address the perception gap that characterizes the relationship and to define a common grand vision for the future.
The American side needs to demonstrate that the U.S. pivot to Asia is not synonymous with the containment of China. By reaffirming that the United States welcomes the Chinese renaissance and is ready to deepen cooperation with Beijing without ideological bias, Obama will dissipate Chinese suspicions and contribute to the establishment of a climate of trust.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which does not include China, adds to the misunderstanding created by the American pivot to Asia. As the study U.S.-China 2022: Economic Relations in the Next 10 Years shows, the potential for Sino-American business relations is enormous. Indications that a free trade agreement between the two largest economies in the world could become a reality would put the relationship on a constructive course.
Mutual reassurance presupposes that Xi presents the view that China's reemergence does not entail the West's decline. If China's return to centrality certainly requires a new articulation between the two Pacific countries, it does not necessarily contradict American long-term interests. The United States can maintain good relations with Japan, South Korea, Viet Nam and the Philippines, but it is with the Middle Kingdom that Washington can work for the world's security and development.
Between an antagonistic bipolarity and an unrealistic political integration around the Pacific, China and the United States can envision a middle way, a combination of competition and cooperation that could lead to what Henry Kissinger calls at the end of his book On China: a Pacific Community.
Despite the apparent Sino-American divide on many issues, Xi and Obama are united by two fundamental realities. First, Western modernity is fully compatible with the Chinese renaissance. Secularism, equality between men and women, and the belief in social and economic progress are at the core of Chinese and Western societies.
Second, while China and the United States remain, to a certain extent, the last two superpowers in the midst of powerful globalizing forces, the magnitude of the 21st century security and development challenges exceeds their capacity to face them alone. Neither a Pax Americana nor a Pax Sinica can guarantee that today's multi-polar system does not degenerate into global disorder tomorrow.
At the Sunnylands retreat, the Chinese and American dreams could cross-fertilize. Far from being exclusive, they could be the catalysts of a "world dream," an inspirational vision of equilibrium between the East and the West, unity and diversity, progress and sustainability.
At the end of their Californian encounter, Xi and Obama did not have to reach any specific agreement but, aware of a shared sense of global responsibility, they could proclaim to the world: "We have a dream."
The author is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at the China Europe International Business School, Shanghai, Beijing and Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum
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