In a world of foreign policy resets, rethinks, and redoes, U.S. President Barack Obama’s China strategy is right on track. The Asia pivot or rebalance makes core U.S. interests—freedom of trade and investment, freedom of navigation, and human rights—clear to Beijing in an effective and compelling manner. And within this framework, the United States has engaged China on multiple fronts, including expanding the military-to-military relationship, restarting talks on a bilateral investment treaty (BIT), and supporting all manner of capacity building in the legal, environmental, and public health arenas.
Of course, no one would argue that the U.S.-China relationship is strong; it isn’t. It is plagued by distrust, competition, and competing values, priorities, and policy approaches. Yet that doesn’t mean that both sides shouldn’t continue to seek common ground and cooperate when possible. Here are some ideas for President Obama to consider as the leader of the free world sits down with a leader of the not-so-free world this week in Beijing at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
- Tell us why it works. Much ink has been spilled writing about why the United States and China should work together (because cooperation between Beijing and Washington is necessary for any global challenge to be effectively addressed, blah, blah, blah) but comparatively little—to none—has been expended talking about how the relationship actually has worked. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping should commission a joint study that would report the benefits that citizens in both countries have received from the U.S.-China relationship over the decades. Such a report could provide a real foundation for changing the zero-sum approach that currently underpins much of the relationship
- Complete a bilateral investment treaty. After decades of U.S. investment in China, Chinese companies are now coming to the United States to invest in sectors such as shale gas exploration, real estate, agriculture, manufacturing, and entertainment, among others. The time is ripe for the United States to push for China to level the playing field and fulfill its pledges to open sectors such as financial services, which are still largely closed to foreign investment. If China does not make progress, it shouldn’t expect the U.S. investment environment to remain as hospitable as it currently is.
- Leverage President Xi’s ambition. Xi Jinping is promoting China as a leader in Asia and beyond. Of course, global rights entail global responsibilities, and China is already feeling the pressure to do more in the face of global challenges such as Ebola, humanitarian disasters, and climate change. Washington should also welcome Chinese initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Beijing has pledged that the AIIB will adopt international standards on environment, labor, and governance. If Washington and other major Asian economies join the AIIB, they will have substantial leverage to ensure that China adheres to its promises.
- Embrace multilateralism. The United States is not alone. President Obama should remember that he does not need to take the lead on every issue—his greatest strength is that when considering regional security or political values, most of the Asia Pacific stands with him.
All this being said, the future of Asia is not wholly or even mostly going to be determined by the United States and China. The region is chock full of major economies, large populations, and nationalistic leaders and citizens, all of whom have their own perspective on what an Asian century might mean. Both Xi and Obama should remember this most of all as they attempt to pursue their own visions for the region.