Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will meet for the first time since Xi became president of China on June 7–8 at the Sunnylands estate in Southern California. The informal summit will offer the two leaders a chance to discuss a range of important global issues, some points of contention and others ripe for cooperation.

In a Q&A, Paul Haenle argues that genuine personal diplomacy can lay the groundwork for the new type of great-power relationship that Xi wants. But success depends on Obama and Xi moving beyond scripted talking points and openly discussing all issues and concerns to find areas of mutual interest where real progress is possible.

What is the significance of this U.S.-China summit?

The California summit provides a valuable and necessary opportunity for Presidents Xi and Obama to begin building the personal relationship and trust that can help lay the foundations for an enduring and constructive U.S.-China relationship.

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center based at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Haenle served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama prior to joining Carnegie.
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The bilateral agenda continues to expand even as the relationship appears strained and saddled by mistrust. Real progress on global challenges that the two countries share—nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, terrorism, foreign investment, and Middle East stability, to name a few—will require cooperation between Washington and Beijing.

The June summit is an essential first step in building a strong relationship of strategic understanding that can form the basis of the new approach. The focus should be on making concrete and creative progress in the areas where cooperation is possible, not on establishing preconditions concerning deep-rooted disputes.

What can Obama and Xi do to make this a productive summit?

The approach the two leaders take to their communication will be very important. A good first step toward forging the new type of great-power relationship between the United States and China that Xi has called for is developing a new type of U.S.-China interaction.

In the past, the lack of good rapport or an open atmosphere at meetings has resulted in U.S.-China exchanges that are dominated by scripted talking points. The formalities of official dialogue leave little time for true interaction.

Xi has already taken steps to combat formalism at home. One of his first moves upon becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party last November was to discourage senior Chinese officials from reading scripts at meetings and instruct them to speak more directly and plainly. Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Wang Qishan have echoed Xi’s campaign, telling Chinese officials to speak without notes, summarize only key points and ideas, and think broadly about issues to allow more time for deeper discussions.

The same approach could be used to guide the U.S.-China interaction going forward. Both sides need to set aside their formal talking points and make time for open and interactive exchange. This would not show weakness or naiveté. In fact, it is essential to building trust and avoiding unhealthy competition—interests that both sides share.

Additionally, it will be important and necessary for Obama to draw out Xi on the Chinese leader’s personal views of the strategic and global issues on which the United States and China can and should enhance cooperation, whether it be cybersecurity, climate change, nuclear proliferation, intellectual property rights protection, or trade and investment. Consistent with his guidance domestically, President Xi should be “plain and direct” with President Obama and let him know what issues he feels are ripe for this type of cooperation.

In the past, U.S. leaders have come to their Chinese counterparts with long lists of proposals and ideas for cooperation that were built around the U.S. view of shared interests. Washington has been proactive and willing to put ideas on the table where it sees potential for cooperation.

Unfortunately, the Chinese have perceived this approach as the United States asking China for help on issues that are important to Americans. The Chinese have viewed this not as part of a sincere U.S. effort to develop a joint strategy to solve common problems but rather as Washington wanting Beijing as a subpartner in a process that will ultimately benefit only America (or at least benefit the United States much more than China).

Only through open dialogue and offering up their own concrete proposals will Chinese leaders begin to take active ownership of cooperation with the United States and be able to sell the effort to their public as having been advanced by Beijing and pursued with Chinese interests in mind.

How does public opinion factor into the summit?

In both China and the United States, there appears to be a difference between the leadership’s perception of the bilateral relationship and public opinion on the matter. Obama and Xi have an opportunity with this meeting to begin shaping domestic perceptions and improving the context in which these issues are worked out.

Given that the two leaders have completed their own political transition processes, both should be able to speak more plainly about the benefits of U.S.-China cooperation to their own citizens at home. There is often a disproportionate focus on the areas of tension in the relationship and where the two sides disagree.

To create more positive narratives for their respective publics, leaders on both sides need to begin talking more about the benefits of the U.S.-China relationship to ordinary Americans and Chinese.

President Obama could stress the increased purchasing power of Americans thanks to cheap Chinese manufactured goods and job creation stemming from Chinese investment.

President Xi could highlight the economic benefits Chinese have seen from U.S. investment and technology transfer as well as U.S.-secured sea and trading lanes.

Some Americans may not like this narrative because they perceive it as putting China on equal footing with the United States. But I think that Americans need to be more confident in the strengths of their country’s political, economic, and value systems and in the United States’ strong leadership position on the global stage. To make progress on the world’s most pressing challenges, it will be important for the United States to engage with the Chinese and seek deeper cooperation.

Which issues should be prioritized at the summit?

The two leaders should certainly discuss the North Korean nuclear problem and Pyongyang’s recent reckless behavior.

There are now signs that the Chinese are increasingly frustrated and exasperated by North Korean defiance. Beijing’s calculus on North Korea may be changing because China’s own security interests are evolving as it rises in influence and affluence.

This change is based on the country’s own considerations, not simply on American calls for cooperation or pressure from the international community. Understanding this important distinction will be key to how the United States approaches China on the new type of great-power relationship and ultimately to how willing Beijing is to work with Washington in areas of mutual interest and benefit.

Where could the summit go off course?

There is some concern in the United States that the Chinese will try to use the framework of a new type of great-power relations merely as a means to press for U.S. respect of China’s core interests.

This type of approach won’t work. And making this a starting point for discussions on the new paradigm or expecting change on the two countries’ long-standing and historical areas of disagreement—such as Taiwan, territorial disputes, trade, or human rights—in one short summit will only set these initiatives up for failure. On many of these issues, including Taiwan, the United States and China have agreed to disagree since their first communiqué in 1972.

Of course, these differences on important issues should be addressed head-on at Sunnylands. A healthy interaction between the leaders necessarily means that they talk about areas of cooperation as well as areas of disagreement and tension. These discussions should be done with respect for the other side’s views and domestic political constraints and a realistic view of what can be accomplished. Neither side should expect the other to change its principles on fundamental positions overnight. Progress in these areas will take time and patience.

Now, the United States and China need to work hard to find areas where they can cooperate, such as trade and investment, and ways to reduce current areas of tension, like cybersecurity and regional security. Once they agree on these areas of shared interest and concern, they can begin to tackle them aggressively and score “wins” to report back to domestic audiences. Ultimately, the new type of great-power relationship must find accomplishments that benefit both the United States and China: win-win cooperation.