A Great Leap Forward in Diplomacy

 The so-called “shirt-sleeves” meeting between the two leaders of world’s largest and second largest economies has held in California (June 7-8). This informal summit between president Obama and president Xi has attracted world attention. A Harvard political scientist, Joseph S. Nye Jr. was quoted by David Sanger (NY Times June 10), who has said that “the California meeting was the most important one between an American president and a Chinese leader in 40 years, since Nixon and Mao.”

Nevertheless, as opined by Minghao Zhao, a research fellow at the China Center for Contemporary World Affairs, in his article “Mao-Nixon 2.0” run by Project-Syndicate (June 7, 2013) Sino-American relations are far more sophisticated than they were in 1972 considering deepened economic ties.

The role played by economic factors in largely shaping China-U.S. bilateral relationship has been illustrated by Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute,                                                  in his Foreign Policy piece “Xi Is Not Ready” by presenting the figures. He contends that America is economically dependent on China, with nearly $400 billion bilateral trade each year, and close to a $1 trillion of U.S. debt held by Beijing.

Recalling a portion of president Obama’s speech delivered in Tokyo (2009) during his first presidential trip including China, quoted by two NY Times reporters Helene Cooper and Martin Fackler would be contextual. President Obama then said, “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another.” He added, “I know there are many who question how the U.S. perceives China’s emergence.” Obama’s sentiment expressed about four years ago when Hu Jintao was at the helm in China, has reverberated at the 2-day informal meeting with president Xi.

The purpose of the June 7-8 informal summit between the Chinese and the American leaders was not to produce any new agreement as viewed by Jia Qingguo, Professor and Associate Dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University. He had suggested through his Foreign Affairs feature “What Xi Wants” that the end of the California meeting should be to set a positive tone for the Sino-U.S. future relations. As a matter of fact Chinese-American relations have seen ups and downs since they were normalized in 1972.

In the run up to the meeting many experts had presented their opinion on what the summiteers should focus and one of them, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Graham T. Allison Jr., had cautioned that the two leaders should not fall prey to Thucidides Trap. In his New York Times article “Obama and Xi Must Think Broadly to Avoid a Classic Trap” Graham has recalled history showing how the interests of a ruling great power sit at odds with those of the emerging major power.

Obviously, America is the established superpower and China is seeking equal role in global governance, given its impressive annual economic growth (currently 7%) that have added to its international clout.

Professor Allison has explained the historical event that occurred two millenniums earlier in Greece. He has drawn an analogy of that situation with the major power relationship between China and the U.S. According to him Thucidides, the Athenian General and historian, offered a brilliant insight about the causes of the Peloponnesian War in which he identified two variables.  Graham quoted Thucidides , who wrote; “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Additionally, an example of the 20th century Europe has been provided to clarify how a rapidly rising Germany challenged the existing power, Britain in 1913 and consequently led to the First World War (1914-18). Notwithstanding this historical fact, Graham Allison opines that there are instances which prove that rivalries between the established and the emerging major powers do not necessarily result in military confrontation.

Defending his contention he offers the example of Britain, then existing global power of the 19th century and the U.S. a rising power of that era, in which the latter eclipsed the former without war. Conforming to his above mentioned article, the Anglo-American rapprochement emerged from a long period of mistrust and hostility that stand in contrast to modern perceptions of their cultural similarities, mutual affection and shared interests. But he believes that then peaceful outcome was possible due to some factors absent today and which is why he seemed doubtful whether Obama and Xi could escape the classic trap.

Even Stephen Walt, another Harvard professor had predicted before the Obama-Xi meeting that good rapport between the two leaders won’t prevent Sino-U.S. rivalry from intensifying in the future. Through his Foreign Policy piece “The Sunnylands Summit Won’t Stop Sino-American Rivalry” Walt argued that the two states’ core grand strategies are at odds and therefore the meeting is unlikely to halt China and America from confronting each other.

Contrary to Allison’s suspicion and Walt’s pessimism president Obama and the new Chinese leader, who is more confident than his predecessor, have declared their determination to keep disputes over cyber espionage and territorial claims in the Pacific from descending into Cold War mentality and to avoid the pitfalls of a rising power confronting an established one as per David Sanger’s latest news analysis in the NY Times.

Against this background the views of new Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai published through his recent interview to Foreign Affairs Managing Director Jonathan Tepperman are relevant. Foreign Affairs has quoted the envoy. Cui has said, “In the past, when one big country developed very fast and gained international influence, it was seen as being in a kind of zero-sum game vis-à-vis the existing powers. This often led to conflict or even war. Now, there is a determination both in China and the U.S. to not allow history to repeat itself.”

In tune with the above both Obama and Xi have pledged to build a new model of cooperation. As the purpose of their meeting was not to produce any deals but to create an environment of mutual trust which should avoid plunging the world’s existing and emerging great powers into future conflict, there is no reason why the meeting cannot be considered a great leap forward in diplomacy.

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