The United States and China need to overcome mutual misunderstandings

President Obama’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping should mark the United States’ true “pivot” to Asia — and it can’t come soon enough. China is more powerful than many Americans realize, and it is on a trajectory to become even more capable. At the same time, the Chinese may underestimate or misread us. Absent deeper understandings and greater cooperation, that’s a potentially dangerous combination.

I first went to China in 1983, on one of the first official U.S. military visits. In those days, China sought to use the United States as a counterbalance to the threat from the Soviet Union. Traveling to China regularly over the past decade for banking business, I have met top officials and visited enterprises. Unfailingly, I have been welcomed, treated with respect and listened to.

China is a rising power, surging forward economically year after year. Its $8 trillion economy is second only to the United States’ (almost $16 trillion) — but in terms of purchasing power, the two are much closer, and China is growing almost three times faster. Its leaders seem to think their country will soon overtake the United States. They look at U.S. unemployment, slow growth and indebtedness and see a declining economic superpower. The Chinese want their due, and they are growing impatient.

In Xi, who is both president and chairman of the Central Military Commission, the Chinese have a leader who seems comfortable handling the country’s political and economic development as well as its rapidly growing military capabilities. Those include stealth and drone technology; global positioning, anti-missile and anti-satellite capabilities; nuclear missiles; a growing naval capability aimed at the United States; and power-projection forces challenging its Asian neighbors.

It is clear from top-level Chinese diplomatic visits to India and Pakistan this spring and China’s challenges in the South China Sea and near Japan that this generation of leaders will be more assertive. We should listen when they ask why the United States is trying to “contain” China or sends its airplanes to “provoke” Chinese radar. We should take note, too, when Chinese citizens ask why we “like” the Vietnamese and Japanese more than them. In a communist state where the media are controlled, opinions usually start at the top. These are the rumblings that presage a significant challenge.

China’s leaders have a strategy, and they are moving vigorously: procuring natural resources abroad, gathering technology, developing infrastructure, managing urban growth and employment, building a university system and shifting development into China’s interior. Eventually, China will produce more for its markets, protect intellectual property and raise the value of its currency. It will encourage use of the renminbi as a global currency. Its leaders expect to resume China’s historic place at the center of world wealth, culture, technology and power. And, naturally, they are also asserting Chinese sovereignty, using historical claims, the residual antipathies of war and cultural sympathies to push outward — and gain relief from what they see as a too-confining U.S. presence.

As one well-connected Chinese businessman told me: “The Vietnamese are arrogant; they are using you. We will teach them a lesson, and if you get in the way, you will be hurt.” He went on to say that China could blind our GPS and see our stealth aircraft. Was it an idle boast? An indirect “official” warning? A leak from some political-military planning scenario? We need to understand.

Meanwhile, top Chinese officials don’t seem to understand the United States. They don’t travel here for leisure or business. And despite their much-discussed cyber-penetration of U.S. business, academia and government, official China listens through its own experiences and culture. Its leaders don’t hear from our leaders about sweeping strategic visions, such as their own much-publicized five-year plans; to them, U.S. political debate looks like weakness and the free-market system lacks strategic direction, with individual businesses doing almost anything to advance quarterly earnings. They don’t understand why our young people aren’t more motivated educationally. And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, they underestimate the vast economic potential of the United States — the resources, people and incredible energy that an aroused America can bring to any challenge, particularly to our global leadership.

Such misunderstandings not only hinder cooperation but also raise risks in any time of challenge. It is vital that the Obama-Xi talks include discussion of these differing perspectives and take personal measure of the other’s character, style and resolve. These talks also provide an opportunity to recognize common interests, such as asymmetrical trade, investments and exchanges. But areas of disagreement — the Middle East, North Korea, Africa — must also be discussed and markers put in place on issues such as freedom of the seas around China, cybersecurity, trade, investment, corruption and human rights. No concrete results should be anticipated, or sought, yet.

But a schedule should be crafted for frequent meetings, at various levels, on military, environmental, commerce, technology, education and culture issues — and we should seek results. Treaties and written agreements matter less to the Chinese than do broad strategies and general understandings. Nevertheless, we must work to bring them toward the global architecture that the West has constructed in the course of more than half a century. Wherever possible, we should agree and publish confidence-building measures. These will be important in deepening dialogue, promoting mutual understanding and shaping how China deals with the outer world.

There is no better means to resolve the myriad headline issues of the moment than longer-term strategic understandings. These could, and hopefully will, emerge from the Obama-Xi meetings. As the two greatest powers on Earth are already deeply entangled economically and developing their militaries against each other, there is no time to waste.

Wesley Clark is a retired Army general and former supreme allied commander of NATO. He is a fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.

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