Obama in China: Lessons from the Red Carpet

September 12, 2016 | 3:55 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

President Obama’s precipitate decent onto a Chinese red carpet generated more media attention than what could be a planet-saving commitment to combat climate change. This triumph of the trivial raises important questions about the future of US-China relations.

Who has a say?

Relations between nations are a product of the thoughts and behavior of the individuals involved. President Obama and President Xi Jinping appear to have a healthy relationship. They’ve met eight times, engaged in substantive conversations on a variety of divisive issues and found common ground on the single most important public policy challenge facing humankind.

Not bad for a couple of politicians.

These accomplishments were overshadowed, however, by the speculations of a coterie of advisors, functionaries and commentators who believe China and the United States are locked in a zero-sum contest for supremacy. Their confidence in this conviction led them to conclude Obama’s runway faux paus, rather than the climate agreement, was this meeting’s bellwether of US-China relations.

That’s unfortunate. Hundreds of US and Chinese climate and energy experts spent decades building the relationships and developing the mutual understanding that led to the climate accord. Since official relations were reestablished in 1979, thousands of others worked just as hard to build cooperative relationships in the fields of public health, education, trade and technology. Even larger numbers of engaged citizens moved more than 650 billion dollars’ worth of goods and services between the two nations last year. Cooperation is not an incidental or serendipitous aside in the story of US-China relations, even though it may appear that way to the comparatively small cadre of defense, foreign policy and area specialists who see the relationship as a struggle for power.

The future of US-China relations will depend on who defines the terms of engagement and sets the agenda for public policy. The headlines generated by the hang-up in Hangzhou suggest the minority concerned with conflict is in the driver’s seat.

Where are we headed?

If conflict continues to trump cooperation the climate agreement could become a dead letter. The costs would be severe. The United States and China account for approximately 40% of the world’s global warming emissions. An overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists agree that unless we take immediate action to reduce those emissions the environmental impacts of maintaining the status quo will threaten the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of people over the next several decades. International economic and political stability will be even harder to maintain. The already considerable risk of war will increase.

A major military confrontation between the United States and China would be disastrous and a new technical assessment indicates neither side is likely to win. Worse still, both governments are planning substantial upgrades to their nuclear forces, prompting US strategists to re-examine their options if the course of a US-China conflict prompts one or both sides to consider using nuclear weapons. One of those options is to try to limit the potential damage to the United States and its allies with a massive attack intended to destroy the bulk of China’s nuclear forces before they can be launched at targets in the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The growing preoccupation with a US-China conflict is reviving grim Cold War debates about whether the United States or China can tolerate the destruction of a quarter of its industrial capacity and tens of millions of casualties.

According to the experts, avoiding these horrific outcomes depends on the ability of US strategists to signal their Chinese counterparts with well-timed presentations of just the right mix of threatening capabilities. The widely held suspicion that the president of China intended to snub the president of the United States on the eve a G-20 summit just before the two leaders joined the Paris Agreement is an alarming reminder that the signals exchanged by US and Chinese officials are not as clear as one might hope.

What should we do?

The United States and China have long-standing disputes over a number of seemingly intractable issues that Chinese leaders say they may resolve with military force if deemed necessary. Threatening punishment if they try—what the experts call deterrence— is one approach to this problem. Convincing China’s leaders that violence isn’t necessary—that these disputes can be resolved through negotiation and compromise—is another. Both approaches require a good understanding of contemporary China and its rulers.

Unfortunately, the debate over Obama’s final foray into the Middle Kingdom is another reminder that US defense, foreign policy and area specialists may lack the cross-cultural savvy to successfully execute either option.

The potential costs of deterrence are so high, especially if it fails, that common sense demands more consideration of the alternative than the US government seems willing to consider at present. The main purpose of the US “pivot to Asia” seems to be to convince nervous allies that the United States is willing to suffer those costs. While that may be important, providing allies with the expectation that the United States can present China’s leaders with acceptable compromises that will keep the peace is an equally viable means to demonstrate US leadership in Asia. Shifting the focus of allies towards the benefits of cooperation may be more productive, in the long run, than exploiting their fears.

Contemporary China is not the former Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, or Hitler’s Germany. It is a unique, complex and massive collection of human beings who are undergoing a rapid social and economic transformation that could take many different directions, for good or for ill. The United States has been involved in Chinese social, economic and political affairs since the colonial era. It never could and never will determine China’s future but its influence at various times and in various places is indisputable, though rarely clear or predictable. How to best exercise that influence is an appropriate question for the US government. Considering the stakes, it is also a crucial one.

The hiccup in Hangzhou and the hubbub that buried the climate agreement suggest US policy-makers, their advisors, the press and the public need to think about US-China relations with more depth and less hubris than they do at present.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security and has consulted with Chinese and U.S. governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the U.S. House China Working Group, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the U.S. National Academies, NASA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.