“In potential crisis situations, this channel could be even more valuable if official communications were blocked.”
As the White House prepares for President Obama’s inaugural visit to China in November, it’s faced with two possible approaches in planning for what the trip can achieve.
The first is to follow the safe “laundry list” technique, which identifies a long, sometimes unwieldy set of policy objectives, but which China may or may not view as being in its own national interest.
This list would include important topics such as environmental, energy and monetary issues. Raising these at the presidential level could well result in incremental progress, but they and other themes can also be advanced through the ongoing Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) at a ministerial level.
President Obama is in a unique position to break the mold of presidential summitry. Three overarching “deliverables” could be identified that if implemented would significantly reshape the U.S.-China relationship and address serious challenges the two countries face together.
One, establish a formal mechanism among the leaders of the United States, China and Pakistan. China is Pakistan’s most important supporter both because of their geographic proximity and China’s perception of Pakistan as a counterweight to India.
Coordinating policy and economic support for Pakistan would yield a higher return for all three nations. The interests for the United States and China are consonant in Pakistan: removing extremist fundamentalist activity, stabilizing the leadership and encouraging economic growth.
While Pakistan and Afghanistan remains a pivotal challenge to U.S. policy, “AfPak” policy should not be commingled in the context of China, as these two countries mean two entirely different things for Beijing and Washington.
For China, Pakistan holds geostrategic, political and economic importance. Afghanistan is for China primarily an economic opportunity with less, if any, strategic value.
The United States should make clear it does not want to displace Beijing’s influence in Islamabad, but a tripartite approach would advance shared interests and deliver more tangible results in Pakistan.
Two, accelerate the proposed mining schedule for development of the Aynak Copper Reserve in Afghanistan, where the state-owned China Metallurgical Group holds the concession and where Afghan authorities are protecting the copper fields.
Aynak is located about 20 miles southeast of Kabul and is the site of one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper deposits.
With a bid of approximately $3 billion, which includes infrastructure upgrades in Logar Province, where Aynak is situated — and that is known to Afghans as the “gates of jihad” — there is the opportunity for development in this critical region.
Breaking ground at Aynak with American and Chinese officials present would be of great symbolic value. Moreover, China possesses the actual wherewithal to develop the concession in these forbidding lands. Any progress toward increased stability by generating employment would have ripple effects throughout the community.
Three, support the “Sanya Initiative,” a little known but important program that brings together retired service chiefs from each of the armed forces of the U.S. and China. The first meeting was held last year in the resort town of Sanya in China, and this year, it was held in Hawaii, with follow-up trips to Washington and New York.
The initiative is important because it opens up new channels of communication. Furthermore, by its very existence, it is creating greater military transparency and could lead to a better understanding on both sides.
In potential crisis situations, this channel could be even more valuable if official communications were blocked.
The Sanya Initiative is currently funded entirely by private donations. For the program to really succeed, however, it must have support from leaders of both China and the United States. Hence strengthening military ties must be a deliverable, particularly since both sides agree that military-to-military relations are not where they should be.
The United States and China should also strive to build and use other informal contacts on security issues. These could allow discussion of topics that might be difficult or sensitive to raise in formal government channels.
Today one often hears the refrain that America is becoming an economic satellite of a rising China.
The Obama trip to Beijing provides an opportunity to elevate the relationship to include constructive engagement in concentric areas of shared interest — stabilizing Pakistan, advancing soft power interests in Afghanistan, and cooperating on security matters and shared challenges in East Asia.