This weekend, President Obama and China's new leader Xi Jinping will meet at a retreat outside of Los Angeles. The two men are scheduled to spend six to seven hours covering a range of issues that confront the two countries, from the increasingly fraught issue of hacking and cybersecurity to what to do about an evermore unpredictable and rogue North Korea. The summit was arranged only recently, almost impromptu and more casual and low-key than the pomp and circumstances state visits of the past decade. That should in no way, however, obscure just how important the meeting is.
Rarely in history has an emerging power met an existing power without mayhem and conflict ensuing. China today is clearly emerging, with an economy that will soon be larger than the United States's, though the income of Chinese citizens will remain far behind their U.S. counterparts for many years to come. In spite of recent stumbles, the U.S. remains the only country with global reach both economically and militarily.
Yet tensions notwithstanding, by any historical standard, the U.S.-China relationship has been managed remarkably well, and this casual but symbolically significant summit between the two leaders is yet another indication of that. We focus habitually on all that is going wrong in the world, yet for now at least, the China-U.S. relationship is going right. That's not because either country and its people like the other or trust the other, but it is because we need each other.
Regardless of the outcome of the summit -- and in truth, there is likely to be very little substantive public outcome -- how this relationship is managed matters more to the long-term health of both the United States and China than what, say, the Fed does or does not do in the coming months. For more than ten years, the China-U.S. relationship has been an anchor of economic growth and the fulcrum of the global economy. And that is likely to be true for the next decade as well.
The importance of China to the United States, of the U.S. to China, and of the two to the world has, if anything, increased in the past two years as the European Union has sunk ever more deeply into recession and disillusion. For much of the early 2000s, you could credibly say that there were three pillars of the global economy. Now there are two.
Five years ago, China was the topic du jour for Americans, and the U.S. was a central concern of the Chinese government. Today, Americans are once again focused on domestic issues, whether it's the Fed, Washington scandals, or the long-term challenge of structural underemployment. China is no longer front and center, except when it touches national-security nerves. The past months have seen increased tension and heightened rhetoric about the threat of China cyber-espionage, which has now supplanted intellectual property infringement as the hot-button issue. China, in turn, sees these issues through a lens of increased U.S. resistance to China's rise as the preeminent Asian power, and as a double standard that treats Chinese hacking as a grave violation of international standards but sees no issue with the substantial and sophisticated electronic surveillance system overseen by the National Security Agency.