Barack and Xi

Anticipating the summit between the two presidents, Osnos predicts “the chances of success this week are high”:

The comparison to Kennedy and Khrushchev can sound melodramatic; the stakes this time are lower in the short term. But they are just as high in the long term. I am optimistic about the chances for success. Both sides know they cannot afford to insult or bully—and neither man is known for it. More importantly, they know that history has been unkind to great powers who fail to come to an accommodation. Neither side wants conflict, but, as of today, neither can exclude the possibility. That is a powerful motivator. “The ultimate question,” Reynolds wrote, “is whether a leader feels that in the last resort he can afford to walk away empty-handed.” The summit in the desert will be the rare case in which neither side can afford to leave empty-handed—or to run the table.

I worry about the Thucydides trap. Stephen Walt is, in contrast, a refreshing glass of iced water:

Neither Obama nor Xi can alter the core interests of the two countries, or wish away the various issues where those interests already conflict or are likely to do so in the future. The best they can achieve is a better understanding of each other’s red lines and resolve and some agreement on those issues where national interests overlap. In this way, each can hope to keep things from getting worse and at the margin make relations a bit warmer. In this sense, personal summitry of the sort being practiced this weekend is the only card either can play.

But even if Obama is successful this weekend, this effort is unlikely to prevent Sino-American rivalry from intensifying in the future. The basic problem is that the two states’ core grand strategies are at odds, and good rapport between these two particular leaders won’t prevent those tensions from re-emerging down the road.

John Cassidy’s perspective:

In the long run … accommodation is the only practical option. China is too big and it’s growing too fast to be contained. By 2016, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development, it will be the world’s biggest economy, and that is only the beginning. Despite a slight slowdown in recent months, China continues to invest heavily in the future. During the next couple of years alone, it is planning to build more than a hundred thousand miles of highways, fifty new airports, and more than five thousand miles of high-speed rail track.

What, then, should Obama do? Despite all the uproar about corporate espionage and hacking, the first thing on his to-do list should be reassuring the Chinese government, and the Chinese people, that the United States seeks coöperation rather than confrontation. As Ross wrote: “The right China policy would assuage, not exploit, Beijing’s anxieties, while protecting U.S. interests in the region.” That doesn’t mean ignoring examples of egregious behavior by Chinese, but it means dealing with them in the right setting. For example, complaints about intellectual property theft can be pursued through the World Trade Organization, which China joined more than a decade ago.