Given the great importance of the weekend's two days of meetings in California between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Americans should pay very close attention to what filters out of the sessions.
Mr. Xi, who heads a nation of 1.3 billion with an economy whose size will pass that of the United States within 10 years, is at the beginning of a likely 10 years of leadership. He is proclaiming what he calls "the Chinese dream," a vision of wealth and strength for his country, in spite of the formidable problems it faces. There is no problem for the United States in Mr. Xi's vision of a better way of life for China's people, except when some of the actions his country takes in pursuit of that vision collide with America's interests.
Economic development by competing countries need not and should not become a zero-sum game. At the same time, Mr. Xi's and China's vision come against an historical background that includes what the Chinese consider to be a century of humiliation in the 1800s and what everyone sees as a century of chaos in the 1900s. There is also reference now by senior Chinese officials, particularly on the military side, to a "post-American era." Although Mr. Obama meant it to be a signal of a shift of American attention away from the Middle East, his reference to a "pivot to Asia" in U.S. policy is seen by the Chinese to be a potential threat to their own ambitions in their region.
Mr. Obama should put forward a vision of U.S.-Chinese relations that is based on a peaceful cooperation that is appropriate to two world giants, including orderly competition. If there is an idea of containing China, limiting any expansionist part of its "Chinese dream," that should be left largely to its strong, serious neighbors, which include India, Indonesia, Japan, Russia and South Korea, not to the expensive build-up of U.S. forces in the region that the Department of Defense is seeking. Interestingly enough, the problems confronting both countries are not that different. These include corruption, education, environment, jobs, a wealth gap and internal regional differences.
This will be Mr. Xi's third visit to the United States and his first as president. His first foreign visit as president was to post-Communist Russia, underlining his own Communist Party's political antecedents. Mr. Obama and he will have an unprecedented, valuable opportunity to explore at length, out of the glare of attention of America's 24/7 media, the serious matters that will lie ahead, during and after Mr. Obama's presidency. America's leader must be on top of his game.