The U.S. and China are still in a position to master their national destiny, the transnational financial markets, the fluctuations of oil, gas or food prices, the constraints of a multipolar geopolitical order impact their economies but do not command their policies, in a globalizing world, they act while the others react.
The vital importance of their bilateral relations is obvious, while Xi Jinping's predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, made their first trip to the U.S. several years after they became China's top leaders, Barack Obama will welcome his new Chinese counterpart only three months after Beijing's power change.
The two statesmen find themselves at a historical juncture, either a rising rivalry fueled by populist sentiments or the quest for a new paradigm which would accommodate the redistribution of world power, either fear and the perspective of conflict or an effort of construction to protect against the follies of war.
The two most powerful men on the planet will not meet in a political capital but at Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate in the Californian desert, they do not have to prepare negotiations but a two-day retreat conducive to in-depth exchanges of ideas and to positive interpersonal chemistry, the intangible but essential component of world politics.
North Korea, the relations between China and her neighbors in the East and South China Sea, cyber security, Iran, Syria and the Middle East, Central Asia, the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, climate change, are the issues that will occupy the attention of the statesmen, but, in the long term, what really matters is to address the perception gap which characterizes the relationship and to define a common grand vision for the future.
The American side needs to demonstrate that the U.S. pivot to Asia is not synonymous with the containment of China. By reaffirming that the U.S. welcomes the Chinese renaissance and is ready to deepen the cooperation with Beijing without ideological bias, Barack Obama will dissipate the Chinese suspicions and contribute to establish a climate of trust.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which does not include the PRC adds to the misunderstanding created by the American pivot to Asia. As the study U.S.-China 2022:Economic Relations in the Next 10 Years shows, the potential for the Sino-American business relations is enormous, indications that a Free Trade Agreement between the two largest economies in the world could become a reality would put the relationship on a constructive course.
Mutual reassurance presupposes that Xi Jinping presents the view that China's reemergence does not entail the West's decline. If China's return to centrality certainly requires a new articulation between the two Pacific countries, it does not necessarily contradict the American long term interests, the U.S. can maintain good relations with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam or the Philippines but it is with the Middle Country that Washington can work for the world's security and development.
Between an antagonistic bipolarity and an unrealistic political integration around the Pacific, China and the U.S. can envision a middle way, a combination of competition and cooperation which could lead to what Henry Kissinger calls at the end of his book On China, a Pacific community.
Despite the apparent Sino-American divide on many issues, Xi and Obama are united by two fundamental realities. First, Western modernity is fully compatible with the Chinese renaissance, secularism, equality between men and women, the belief in social and economic progress are at the core of the Chinese and Western societies.
Second, while the U.S. and China remain, to a certain extent, the last two real sovereign states in the midst of powerful globalizing forces, the magnitude of the 21st century security and development challenges exceeds their capacity to face them alone, neither a Pax Americana nor a Pax Sinica can guarantee that today's multipolar system does not degenerate tomorrow into a global disorder.
At the Sunnylands retreat, the China Dream and the American Dream can cross-fertilize, far from being exclusive they can be the catalysts of a World Dream, an inspirational vision of equilibrium between East and West, unity and diversity, progress and sustainability.
At the end of their Californian encounter Xi Jinping and Barack Obama do not have to reach any specific agreement but, aware of a shared sense of global responsibility, they can proclaim to the world: "We have a dream."
David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.