Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping Chart the Future of U.S.-China Relations

As the 1970s dawned, the People’s Republic of China was a closed, forbidding society. Then came the famed opening to the West. Reforms unleashed the creativity of the Chinese people, causing the PRC to go from isolated backwater to emerging giant; which is changing the international order. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping is meeting President Barack Obama in California this week. Much is at stake in their administrations forging a working relationship.

As I explained in my latest Forbes online column:

There is abundant cause for misunderstanding and disagreement across a range of issues. Treating each other as adversaries, as advocated by some in both countries, would be disastrous. Neither nation, nor Asia and the world, would benefit from conflict between the two.  In contrast, much could be achieved if the world’s superpower and incipient superpower develop a cooperative relationship.

Chinese officials with whom I spoke last week in Beijing spoke of a new “great power relationship” to reshape ties between Beijing and Washington.  Despite obvious differences in important areas, Liu Jieyi, Vice Minister of the Communist Party’s International Department, rightly argued that “there are many issues where we have common interests and common responsibilities.” What sets today apart from the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union is the fact that current differences don’t constitute “structural and irreconcilable conflicts and problems,” in Liu’s words.

That doesn’t mean the gaps separating the two countries on questions ranging from human rights to security policy are small. Obviously, it is easier to call for cooperation than to practice it. 

Nevertheless, there is no necessity for conflict. Peace requires cooperation when possible and accommodation when necessary. That means the willingness on both sides to negotiate and compromise. Most critical is to avoid the temptation to treat the other side as an enemy, which could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even Americans should celebrate in China’s “rise,” which has raised countless numbers of people out of poverty. But there are legitimate reasons why other nations worry about China’s dramatic entry into the world system

The U.S. and China must find a way to work together not only for themselves, but also for the rest of Asia and the world. The most important relationship in coming years will be that between America and China. We all must make it a century of cooperation rather than confrontation.