President Obama will host China’s President Xi Jinping next week in the Chinese leader’s first state visit to the United States – a rare chance for the leaders of the two largest economies in the world to engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball dialogue about common concerns.

Secretary of State John Kerry described the relationship between China and the U.S. as “the most consequential in the world today, period, and it will do much to determine the shape of the 21st century.”

Despite high-profile differences over cybersecurity, human rights and the South China Sea, the two countries have become increasingly dependent on each other, and the discussion in the White House will likely aim at forging common ground to serve the interests of both countries.

It’s hard to comprehend just how much China has changed in such a short time span. Could Mao Zedong have imagined when he met with Richard Nixon 43 years ago that the communist leaders in China today would be focused on such capitalist concerns as steadying a swooning stock market, supporting slowing exports and boosting domestic consumption?

China today produces 25 percent of the world’s manufactured goods compared with just 3 percent in 1991. Becoming a leading low-cost manufacturer galvanized China’s economy while giving the U.S. and other developed countries low-cost goods, which has provided the added benefit of keeping inflation in check.

But it’s not easy to maintain this mutually beneficial relationship as interests both converge and collide.


Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum is featuring the work of the artist Chen Zhen. In one exhibit, Chen has constructed two steamships with propellers, one carrying products from China and the other products from the Western world. The boats are both colliding and connected – a metaphor of the relationship between China and the West.

Chen Zhen’s exhibit criticizes China’s modernization by heightening the underbelly of the country’s rapid industrialization. China’s low-cost manufacturing export strategy has come with a high environmental price tag: The pollution in China’s industrial cities looks much like our industrial regions did before Maine’s Sen. Edmund Muskie initiated clean air and water legislation.

In another exhibit, Chen has constructed a 65-foot dragon made out of old bicycle tire tubes and discarded bicycles, bemoaning China’s abandonment of its environmentally friendly bicycle for the polluting, road-clogging automobile.

And in yet another exhibit, Chen questions the loss of the highly social hutong communities, which have been replaced by towering skyscrapers. Traditional communal life replaced by Western-style individualism.

The 2008 financial crisis in the U.S. and Europe forced China to confront its overdependence on the West to support the Chinese economy, which has led to a pivot from a predominantly manufacturing economy to one with greater balance between manufacturing and service, exports and domestic consumption.

This shift provides greater opportunity for the U.S. to export its products into China. But such a transformation depends on a Chinese population with confidence to consume, which in turn requires higher wages, affordable housing, retirement benefits and medical coverage.


Now that China has ascended to become a world power, it remains to be seen how it will exercise its new status in the world. Given China’s population and newfound wealth, it is only natural that it would seek a hegemonic role in Asia – and other parts of the world.

China spends over $200 billion per year on its military – about a third that of the U.S. Both countries have an interest in avoiding a Cold War-type arms race that diverts national talent and treasure from each country’s serious social and economic challenges. Establishing trust, transparency and restraint ought to be at the center of these presidential discussions.

President Obama might prepare for his meeting with President Xi by reading James Brady’s recent book, “The China Mirage,” which traces the missteps in the United States’ relationship with China going back to the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

As Brady notes, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which drove hardworking Chinese out of the U.S., generations of Americans, including its presidents, were deprived of ever knowing any Chinese. Not surprisingly, for many years, America and its leaders developed a distorted view of China. Brady’s book underscores the missed opportunities in our relationship with China – a lesson for our current leaders.

China and the U.S. must find ways to nurture their interdependence and recognize their obligation to work together to tackle global issues. It begins with developing trust between these two leaders, which is why this meeting is so important.

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