President Barack Obama's two-day meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California at the end of the week is a brilliant move. The special treatment for China and the effort to establish a personal relationship with the person who will lead it for the next 10 years is clear acknowledgement by the United States that China is likely to remain the second power in a world likely to be dominated for some time by the two of them.
Mr. Obama's action is thus prescient and designed to avoid a possible multitude of problems, and, if things work out, achieve understandings in a number of areas to the advantage of both countries. We will have to hope that Mr. Obama is smart enough neither to be deceived nor to be buffaloed by Mr. Xi.
Another good reason for Mr. Obama to work out a close relationship with Mr. Xi is to enable the United States and China to avoid war. Both presidents have ambitious, expansive, sometimes aggressive militaries whose leaders and backers might not entirely perceive the undesirability for either country to get into armed challenges or conflicts.
For the United States, coming off two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, one of them completed and the other winding down, the military-industrial complex may be in search of enemies to help business. The Pentagon wants to continue to have first slice of the budget, particularly in the face of sequestration and other efforts to reduce deficits. In particular, the U.S. Navy, feeling that its needs did not receive adequate attention with the emphasis in Iraq and Afghanistan on ground and air forces, might be looking hopefully at China and Asia, where naval forces would play a larger role in a conflict.
Mr. Obama has already pandered to these military and industrial elements in the United States to a degree in his "pivot to Asia," although putting his new policy into effect doesn't have to mean pivoting the turrets on U.S. battleships toward China. It is sufficient to say that China's military is expanding, with all that means.
An essential element is for Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi to develop the ability to understand each other well enough to head off any escalation of the irritations that inevitably will develop between their countries. These will multiply as China expands its reach and the United States tries to hold onto its preeminence, even as its financial ability to sustain this status declines.
One irritant that must be high on the two presidents' lists in California is the evolving cyberwar between the United States and China. Rules need to be established, and both presidents need to put into effect within their governments the means to prevent violations of those rules -- and the fury these can provoke. The People's Liberation Army is hacking away at American military and industrial secrets. If the United States could not deal with this invasive behavior decisively should it wish to, we as taxpayers have been wasting many billions of dollars for many years.
Commercial competition is fine. Mutually beneficial commercial relations are far better. We won't even get too upset if China does things like buy Smithfield Foods, the nation's largest pork producer. But there need to be some ground rules for economic competition as well as for financial relationships, such as requiring true currency exchange rates.
The fact that China is now taking advantage of the increased oil production in Iraq post-U.S. occupation is a little hard to swallow, given that Iraq's oil was speculated to be one of the oily Bush administration's reasons for the 2003 invasion, but that can be seen as legitimate economic competition. It even makes the pool of world oil larger and, in principle, the price lower.
What is unhelpful, and needs to be contained by Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama, is any conflict that might arise between China and Japan over the bits of rock sticking up in the East China Sea that both claim, or if China were to let Kim Jong Un, the dotty young leader of its North Korean dependent, start something in its neighborhood. The United States could contribute to making things go more smoothly on the Korean peninsula by withdrawing its 28,500 troops remaining in South Korea, six decades after the end of the Korean War.
One subject the two leaders need not worry about at this point is Taiwan. China plans to make Taiwan part of its territory -- eventually. The United States shows no tendency to make it a potential point of conflict by, for example, sailing naval vessels through the Straits of Taiwan. And the Taiwanese and the Chinese themselves seem relatively content to make sulfurous speeches while they steadily improve commercial and cultural relations.
Finally, both leaders -- Mr. Obama certainly and Mr. Xi possibly less enthusiastically -- should take this opportunity to look carefully at world trouble spots where cooperation between the United States and China could bring more peace and order. Aside from North Korea, there leaps to mind Iran, Lebanon and Syria.
It is critical that both leaders move from "How do we avoid stepping on each other's toes?" to "How can we work together to make the world a better, more peaceful, less dangerous place where we both can flourish?"
This seems possible and, at the least, should be a goal of the talks.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1976).