President Xi Jinping of China will soon arrive in the US for his first official state visit since assuming office in 2012. And, of course, there is plenty of contention between the two countries at the moment while the world appears to be tumbling into an abyss of political and economic instability.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the professional prognosticators are busying themselves with predictions of who has what agenda and what will or will not be accomplished during Xi’s visit.
I’ve read and listened to a lot of them – from both sides – and my own conclusion is that the US and China are once again speaking past each other. Not as a conscious negotiating tactic mind you. They’re just speaking two different languages.
It is often said that there are only somewhere between 4 and 7 original stories ever told throughout the history of mankind (i.e., man vs man, man vs society, etc.) A friend of mine who worked on the first Star Wars movie once noted that despite the groundbreaking special effects, it was really a very old story – “a wagon train in space.”
When it comes to geo-politics, however, I don’t think the story really matters at all. What matters is what I call the narrative – the story within the context it is placed. The story and the context act as the yin and yang of ultimate truth. A story that is not fiction may not be truth, either. It is but one potential version of the truth, or part of the truth, depending on which context you place it in.
The overriding narrative of the history of mankind is change. Geo-politics is a movie, not a postcard. And in the modern era it is not a feature film. It is an endless stream of ‘shorts’.
Shorts, I would argue, are logically more sensitive to context than feature films. There’s less time to tell the story, which, in turn, means less opportunity to understand the context and how the story fits (i.e. how it is influenced).
Chinese State Councilor YANG Jiechi, in a recent interview with China Daily, predicted that Presidents Obama and Xi will “further chart the course of the China-US relationship, particularly the new model of major-country relationship.” The Chinese, in other words, want to talk about context and I am quite sure, particularly in a pre-election year, the US shares no such interest or intent.
Maintaining the current context of Western global domination is what the US wants, and it will attempt to do so by focusing on the story rather than the context. It will, in other words, want to discuss issues that tilt the narrative in its favor.
To further explain my point, Chinafile.com recently solicited the opinions of seven American China experts on how they felt the US should conduct the state visit. One of those experts went so far as to propose that the visit be canceled, “…forcing the Chinese to focus on the real problems their actions are causing and ceasing at least for the time the charade of engagement…”
Actions, of course, relate to issues – in this case, it appears, human rights, political reform, and military activity in the South China Sea specifically. Without a change in the context of the narrative, however, all, I assure you, are dead-end issues and will only serve to further consolidate President Xi’s power at home.
Another of the contributing experts noted that, “Indeed, the US perceives that China acts as if its interests trump international law,” rendering, in this expert’s opinion, all of China’s talk about respect, peace, and non-confrontation all sounding a bit hollow.
Again, the narrative – China is acting unilaterally and in its own interests. Again, issues. What’s missing, however, is the context; that context being that ‘international law’, as now defined, was largely written by the US and its Western allies with a bias clearly intended to protect their own interests.
This is precisely China’s point. International law needs to be inclusive and it isn’t. It applies to everyone but is largely controlled by the former colonial powers. Which is precisely why the US can so easily brush aside notions of hypocrisy (water-boarding and privacy invasion versus island-building). The US narrative is defined within its own self-serving context (i.e. protecting world peace by consolidating its own power).
Neither narrative, of course, is going to change between now and the end of September, setting the stage for a colossal diplomatic failure.
I suggest, therefore, that the organizers on both sides play to both the context desired by the Chinese and the issues the US believes will maintain the current US narrative. It’s a start.
In terms of context, the most important victory for the Chinese (both the government and its people) will be the show of respect. While some American politicians and analysts have suggested Obama minimize the pomp and circumstance as a diplomatic ‘slap on the wrist’, if you will, I suggest that the US roll out the biggest damn red carpet it can find. (Maybe even add a 22nd gun to the salute.)
With their inductive worldview the Chinese put great substance in ceremony. To treat Xi’s visit on a level comparable to a state visit from the prime minister of – pick your developing country – would be taken as a great insult by the Chinese. And rightfully so, in my opinion.
And whether we like it or not, Xi is perhaps the most nationalistic leader of China since Chairman Mao himself. His father was a revolutionary war hero and his dream is a ‘China Dream’, the cornerstone of his political agenda. The US will gain nothing by treating him as anything less than the undisputed leader of the world’s most populous nation and second largest economy.
From the Chinese side I believe there are two issues that are of equal importance to both the US and China. One is environmental and climate degradation. The other is terrorism. Both have a strong incentive to work together to solve these problems and if even a small step can be taken it will have a profound impact on the world.
And there is one issue that is also contextual – i.e. it changes the narrative without either side conceding issues or context. If President Obama really wants to procure his legacy as one of inclusiveness, as has been advocated, this is a once-in-a-presidency opportunity.
China was one of the founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), an Asian counter-part of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but without the US’s exclusive veto power. (The AIIB has specifically been designed so that no single country, including China, would have veto power.) To date, 57 countries, including four of the five UN Security Council members and half of the European Union, including France, Germany, and Italy, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea have joined.
The US, however, has refused to lend its support and not so secretly urged its allies, specifically Japan, to follow their lead. This, in my view, is an indefensible mistake at every level. This is not a military or economic issue with any downside for the US. It has no reason not to join other than to thwart the rise of China. The argument that it will compete with the WMF and IMF is transparently specious since the whole point of the US economic system is that investment growth is not a zero sum game. (The proverbial pie gets bigger for all.)
If he doesn’t believe he has the Congressional support to pledge membership, President Obama does have the authority to pledge cooperation and coordination. And that one simple pledge would bridge the gulf of issues and context, give both sides a legitimate claim to a productive state visit, and President Obama enhanced credibility in his effort to build a legacy of inclusiveness.
Gary Moreau’s latest fictional novel written under the pen name of Avam Hale.
Copyright © 2015 Gary Moreau
President Obama photo credit: Drop of Light/Shutterstock.com
Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.
You may contact the author at email@example.com