When Xi Meets Obama

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – As Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his trip to the United States in Seattle, home to many of the world’s leading technology firms, most observers are looking ahead to his subsequent meeting with President Barack Obama. Can the summit reverse the downward spiral in US-China relations that began with Xi’s accession to power in 2013?

Few dispute that the world’s most important bilateral relationship is in deep trouble. From the US perspective, China’s reckless behavior in the South China Sea, unrestrained cyber attacks against American targets, protectionist economic policies, and escalating political repression at home have demolished the belief that a globally integrated China would be a responsible and cooperative partner. Indeed, recent Chinese actions directly challenge vital American interests and core values.

Chinese leaders, for their part, view America’s strategic “pivot to Asia” as a thinly veiled step to tighten its geopolitical containment of China. Moreover, they have become obsessed with US dominance in international finance and technology and, most important, America’s ideological commitment to liberal democracy, which they regard as an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The toxic mix of mutual mistrust and tit-for-tat behavior has brought Sino-American ties to their lowest point since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. There is now widespread concern that the US and China may be headed for a new cold war.