This week's summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama offers a historic opportunity to improve U.S.-China relations - but only if both sides frankly discuss the critical issues now dividing them and lay the basis for an ongoing process of mutual threat reduction.
Fortunately, there is one major area where the two leaders have already found common ground and can move the relationship forward - countering the nuclear threat from North Korea.
To their credit, Obama administration officials are approaching the summit in a positive frame of mind. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told President Xi during a late May meeting in Beijing that President Obama is "firmly committed to building a relationship defined by higher levels of practical cooperation and greater levels of trust, while managing whatever differences and disagreements might arise between us."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel emphasized last Saturday that Washington seeks more transparency in dealing with China on cyberespionage as well as other pressing issues. As he put it, "you have to talk to each other, be direct with each other, be inclusive."
President Xi told Donilon in Beijing that the "current China-U.S. relationship is at a critical juncture" where both sides must now "build on past successes and open up new dimensions for the future." He called for the two countries to explore "a new type of great power relationship."
Donilon responded to Xi's suggestion by emphasizing that an "essential part of building a new model for relations between great powers is ensuring we have a healthy, stable and reliable military to military relationship."
So both governments are making the right noises and raising expectations that the summit will yield concrete positive results. One mutually beneficial measure has already come out of the pre-summit discussions, as reported by the New York Times - the U.S. and China have agreed on holding regular, high-level talks with the goal of setting "standards of behavior for cybersecurity and commercial espionage."
But as important is it is to stop Chinese hacking of intellectual property and innovative technology developed by American companies, this diplomatic effort falls short of what the situation requires - a parallel and equivalent focus on military espionage.
Recent Pentagon reports document numerous instances where the Chinese military has obtained information about U.S. weapons systems from both government computers and defense contractors. For its part, China argues that it has been victimized by U.S. cyberattacks seeking to test the PLA's capabilities and insists that the American military dominates cyberspace.
Cyberespionage of this kind simply cannot be ignored. It should be discussed in existing intelligence-sharing channels. A formal "cyber arms control agreement" is neither necessary nor optimal as a means of resolving each side's concerns; but reaching a set of practical understandings that minimize conflict is both possible and highly desirable. The alternative course where each country takes unilateral punitive actions against the other could easily spin out of control and fundamentally disrupt U.S.-China relations.
The Obama administration's proposal to strengthen military-to-military ties by addressing "non-traditional security challenges" such as disaster relief and countering piracy also falls short. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. and China held discussions on disaster relief and in 2006, the two countries engaged in search-and-rescue missions involving warships near the Chinese coast and off San Diego. Yet these and other cooperative measures to improve military-to-military relations did not significantly allay strategic distrust.
A far more promising approach is for the U.S. and China to begin an ongoing process of mutual threat reduction, with the goal of ensuring that China is a future partner and not a danger to the interests of America and its allies.
To lay the basis for this process, the first step is for President Xi and President Obama to agree on a common approach to address the threat from North Korea. Achieving this outcome is eminently feasible, now that both Beijing and Washington concur on the importance of North Korea accepting the goal of denuclearization before they agree to reopen negotiations with Pyongyang.
More broadly, President Xi and President Obama can give substance to the concept of achieving a "new model for relations between great powers" by pursuing a diplomatic strategy that minimizes conflict, realizes greater mutually beneficial Sino-American cooperation, and significantly expands trade and investment between the two countries.
Among the U.S. objectives for this policy of mutual threat reduction should be:
• Reducing China's current and potential military threat to Taiwan, helping to secure Taiwan's democracy
• Achieving a pull-back of Chinese military forces from a defined coastal security zone surrounding Japan;
• Having China submit its maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas to an independent international judicial body
• Substantially increasing China's military transparency
• Diminishing the scope, scale and tempo of China's military modernization programs
• Facilitating a new bilateral free trade agreement with China while welcoming Beijing to the negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership to unleash unprecedented levels of international trade and investment, generating hundreds of thousands of new U.S. jobs
• Depriving China's internal security forces of their ability to use the "U.S. threat" to justify domestic political repression
By laying the basis for an ongoing process of mutual threat reduction at this week's summit, President Obama and President Xi can significantly improve U.S.-China relations with the goal of ensuring stability and mutual prosperity in the Asia Pacific for decades to come.
* * *
Donald Gross is senior associate at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a former State Department official, and author of The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China's Rise and Avoid Another Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2013).