Identifying and discussing common concerns like climate change, terrorism, and unstable regions like the Middle East are a better start than
arm wrestling over contentious bilateral issues. The presidents should also be able to find common ground in their frustrations toward the
provocative behavior of North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. But the presidents shouldn't shy away from the tough issues. The value of the meeting
will be increased if they can explain to one another why certain actions by the other country--for example, Chinese cyberattacks on American
firms and American surveillance activities in Chinese coastal waters--are considered highly offensive.
Obama and Xi also can build empathy by discussing the daunting problems they both face at home. Obama will want to ask Xi what he expects to
accomplish in the new round of economic reforms that are being drafted right now. And Xi will want to ask Obama whether he expects to ever get
a budget agreement with the Congress. In explaining the political hurdles they face in their domestic initiatives, they can teach one another
about the domestic political context in which they operate better than any book or intel briefing can ever do.
The reason why so many Americans and Chinese alike look back on the 1972 Nixon/Kissinger visit to China and their interchange with
Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai with such nostalgia is that it was the last time that U.S.-China relations were visited by a breakthrough
that truly transformed the nature of the bilateral relationship. Ever since, we have kept yearning that current leaders would again
find a way to transcend existing differences, recognize the myriad number of growing common interests and begin to collaborate in a
new and more active way.
But alas, even as our two economies have become ever more intertwined, because of our our very complex history, very different
politic systems, opposing ideologies and the deep funds of mutual suspicion about the motives of the other that exists on both
sides of the divide, Washington and Beijing have been able to do little more than maintain a reasonably functional level mutual
tolerance. Yet still we dream on, entertaining hopes that somehow, somevday, some leader will be able to find the magic key, manage
to turn it in the lock and open a new enchanting doorway to a more collaborative relationship.
Now Presidents Obama and Xi have very hopefully decided to grab a few, last minute, informal days together at Walter Annenberg's
former estate, Sunnylands, in Palm Springs, California, as Xi returns home from the Carribbean and Mexico. Once again fantasies of
a breakthrough between our two increasingly seminal countries are arising. But, at such a moment it is important to remind
ourselves that electrifying breakthroughs - such as the ones effected by Nixon and Kissinger in 1972 or Richard Holbrooke with
Slobodan Milosevic in 1998 - are not usually the way history progresses. It tends to progress haltingly in grudging increments, not
in great leaps forward. As Susan Shirk correctly predicts, the best that can be hoped for is probably that the two leaders "can
explain to one another why certain actions by the other country... are considered offensive."