Obama's Big China Summit in California Merely Sets the Stage

With many fearing or hoping for a new cold war while others wish for kumbayah and global cooperation, and still others desire outright Chinese ascendancy over a tired America, the stakes for this summit between President Barack Obama and new Chinese President Xi Jinping seem high.

But summits frequently lead nowhere, and whatever effects this one may have are likely to remain unclear, at least for awhile.

The goal, say Obama advisors, is for the two leaders to get to know one another and develop rapport even as Obama raises some critical concerns.

That's all well and good. But it's best to look to the correlation of forces, to borrow and adjust the old Soviet phrase, i.e., the factors determining relative levels of power and those needed to sustain or heighten power, rather than force of personality when it comes to future dynamics.

The White House and much of the media will attempt to craft a narrative of overall progress or lack of same, of how the presidents perform and how they get along. While that may serve their purposes, and is useful to a certain degree, it won't be very illuminating.

American power in the world is declining, in a relative sense. The power of China, which in a few years will have the largest economy in the world, is rising. The governments of both nations have interests. Each will pursue those interests. The question is how cleverly, and how wisely, each plays its hand.

All this plays out with America in the midst of a complex geopolitical pivot from its fateful over-involvement in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific. (An archive of pieces related to the Pivot.)

Xi, the political scion of a close revolutionary associate of Mao and himself a former party boss of Shanghai, China's most dynamic region, is pushing what he calls the Chinese Dream. While the meaning of the term remains rather vague, as is often the case with important political slogans, its context is clear enough.

Xi introduced the slogan in a speech at the National Museum's Road to Revival exhibition, surrounded by relics of China's travails at the hands of Western colonial powers during imperial China's extreme disarray in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was only, as the exhibition has it, by dint of the rise of Communist Party rule that China's traditional greatness was restored. Now China seems poised to rise to superpower status just as America goes into relative decline. (By relative decline, incidentally, I mean just that. America need not go into absolute decline. In fact, there are signs of great vitality for the U.S., just as there are very problematic signs.)

The shadow of the past hangs especially heavy over U.S.-China relations.

As the U.S. moves further into its geopolitical pivot to the Asia-Pacific, it must be ever mindful of its imperial past in the region, a history which is quite breathtaking in its scope and depth. Americans, never very mindful of history, especially in this twitterized era, may not be aware. But folks in the Asia-Pacific are.

Included in that history was having the actual headquarters of a U.S. Navy fleet, the late Asiatic Fleet, in a Chinese city, that city being Shanghai. And having U.S. Navy gunboats patrolling the inland waters of China a thousand miles and more into the interior of the country. Which I've discussed a few times, including here.

The Asiatic Fleet ceased to exist very early in World War II after serving as a time-buying speed bump for the Imperial Japanese Fleet after Pearl Harbor, as depicted in the classic 1945 Philippines-set John Ford film, They Were Expendable. The real power of the U.S. Navy, its aircraft carriers and battleships, in the Pacific resided in the Pacific Fleet.

The Asiatic Fleet was a collection of old cruisers and destroyers and gunboats designed to show the flag to less powerful countries and, in some cases, enforce "gunboat diplomacy." The Sand Pebbles, the 1966 film starring Steve McQueen as a "China sailor" serving aboard an old gunboat patrolling the inland rivers of China, depicts this very well.

Later, of course, America and China fought each other in a major land war, the Korean War, in the early 1950s.

Just as Russia rejected US and NATO attempts to press in upon the post-Soviet space through NATO expansion to its borders and creation of anti-missile programs -- efforts which spurred on the development of Russian ultra-nationalism -- so too will China reject any attempt to press closely upon it.

Its erratic longtime ally North Korea, prone to threatening rhetoric and actions, is a problem which China acknowledges. But it's hard to imagine that China wants to see it merge with the far more dynamic South Korea, which would place a major U.S. ally snug against its border.

As China, long a land-based power, looks increasingly to naval power, the historic guarantor of trade is key to global reach. Along with commissioning its first aircraft carrier, it's making increasingly dynamic moves in the East China Sea, pursuing an island dispute with Japan, and, more dramatically, pushing very aggressive claims in the South China Sea, one of the world's most important bodies of water for commerce and petroleum reserves. Much to its neighbors' dismay -- especially Vietnam and the Philippines -- China claims virtually the entire South China Sea for itself, making it a major global flashpoint. The US.. has close ties, and treaty alliances, with nations on both seas.

As China moves more assertively on the world's oceans, it is already well established on another sort of ocean, that of cyberspace. Charges of rampant Chinese cyber-espionage and cyber-attacks have been widely reported, as was this case which had the New York Times accusing China of hacking all its systems while the Times worked on a story suggesting massive corruption in China's government.

Needless to say, this is an awkward moment for Obama to be raising these particular concerns, given the sharp controversies over his administration's secret monitoring of journalists and the just-disclosed massive surveillance programs encompassing phone calls and Internet operations.

The Obama Administration was on firmer ground last weekend, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered an important address in Singapore at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of Asia-Pacific defense officials. He talked about the geopolitical pivot to the Asia-Pacific and he specifically raised deep concerns about China, especially with regard to cyber hacking and its vastly expansive claims to virtually the entire South China Sea. The full text of Hagel's speech as delivered is available here.

A Chinese general responded immediately, challenging the emerging repositioning of major U.S. Navy and other military assets to the Pacific Basin. Hagel followed that challenge by visiting USS Freedom, first of a new class of fast littoral combat ships, which is now based in Singapore, though still officially home ported in San Diego, California.

Of course, it's not at all all confrontational. There are ways to cooperate to mutual benefit. After all, the U.S. and China have a symbiotic relationship -- China needing American markets for its export-oriented economy and the U.S. needing Chinese finance -- a reality which may well be the ultimate guarantor that any future unpleasantness can be reined in.

It's fitting that literally the first person to greet Xi as he walked off his plane late Thursday afternoon in Ontario, California was Governor Jerry Brown, who as I wrote in that piece toured China leading a California trade and investment mission in April.

Brown, who does a great many things informally, has his formal meeting with Xi, whom he hosted last year, Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort. A hotel that already holds a substantial amount of good fortune for Brown. For it was that hotel in Indian Wells where then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made his fall 2007 pitch to the California Republican Party convention to arrest its slide to the hard right and move toward the center. The party's refusal to follow Schwarzenegger's advice set many things in motion, including Brown's own landslide 2010 election victory over billionaire Meg Whitman.

Like Brown, who came away from his April tour of China with about $2 billion in investment commitments, Schwarzenegger also toured China, in 2010. China, its vast and growing wealth not trickling down nearly as rapidly as one might suppose in an avowedly socialist society, is a sparkling lure for those seeking foreign direct investment.

It is also a critical pivot for the planet's future climate. That's why Brown, like Schwarzenegger -- who has worked to bring Chinese officials on board with the California approach through his three Governors' Global Climate Summits as well as his ongoing work with his UN-affiliated R20 organization of sub-national governments -- is pushing Chinese officials to pursue more energy efficient and environmentally benign forms of development.

In its rapid industrialization phase, China has pursued the ultimate in the "all of the above" energy strategy, throwing up coal plants even as it became a world leader in renewable energy. If it continues on its old course, hopes to avert a sharply altered climate are sharply diminished. But if it shifts in a direction favored by Brown, Schwarzenegger, and Obama -- some of whose policies are modeled after those of California -- the shape of the future will be different.

Even in geopolitics, it's not all, nor need it be, confrontation with China. There is a potential global partnership agenda to pursue.

Early in the week, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Cecil Haney, visited the headquarters of China's South China Sea Fleet in Zhanjiang, China. Lines of communication are not only remaining open, they are being pursued.

And differences over Syria and, before that, Libya don't have to mean future confrontation. The two powers could cooperate to great effect on future international crises.

In fact, events in Syria, where it looks like Russia is effectively checking Western attempts to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels to take down the Assad regime, which has gained the decided upper hand in the Syrian civil war, may paradoxically make it easier to pursue cooperation on future crises.

With Russia's seeming checkmate in Syria removing pressure from what has been an increasingly pressure-packed situation, Obama and Xi may have one less irritant for the two countries' future relationship.

Amidst the pleasant opulence of Sunnylands, the old Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage on Bob Hope Drive, Obama can present what might be described as his 21st century variant on the "Open Door" policy. For he seeks, or so he can say, merely to ensure multiple access to important international waters that happen to lap on China's shores, a rather more benign variant of Teddy Roosevelt era Secretary of State John Hay's formulation, in which Western colonial powers were each granted access to a then supine China.

The re-balancing of U.S. naval and other military forces to the Pacific, the burgeoning Trans Pacific Partnership for trade -- which does not currently envision China as a party to it -- these are still peaceful moves on the geopolitical gameboard which America, even in its relatively weakened state after more than a decade of ill-conceived wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, can readily undertake. So long as it frees itself of those entanglements, that is.

Are Obama and Xi crafty enough to avoid direct confrontation in favor of a creative tension as the new dynamic between America and the rising China? It will take more than a weekend to determine that.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.