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International Relations

Forging the new 'big power' relationship

US President Obama and Chinese President Xi are to meet in California to talk about the future of US-China relations. But the two-day summit may be clouded by growing concerns about cyberattacks, human rights and piracy.

US President Barack Obama speaks alongside Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (C) during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 14, 2012. (Photo: AFP)

China USA Gipfeltreffen Barack Obama und Xi Jinping

There will be none of the pomp associated with US-Chinese summits when US President Barack Obama meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands Estate in Southern California this week. In an unprecedented move, both parties agreed to ditch the ties and break from diplomatic protocol. In the private retreat the leaders of the top two economic and trading nations will be holding a shirt-sleeves summit.

The global balance of power has been shifting over the past few years. While the US ranks amongst the world's most indebted countries, China has become one of its biggest lenders. By the next decade China is expected to overtake the US as the largest economy on earth. At the Sunnylands residence Obama will be meeting with an assertive Chinese leader seeking a bigger place at the global table.

The real essence of the talks scheduled for this Friday and Saturday (June 7-8, 2013) was summed up a year ago by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "The United States and China are trying to do something that is historically unprecedented, to write a new answer to the age-old question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet."

'Strategic distrust'

Historically speaking, the answer to this question has been in most cases conflict and war. In the current case, ties between the Washington and Beijing have been characterized by mutual suspicion, especially regarding each other's long-term objectives. This has prompted political scientists to describe the relationship as one of "strategic distrust."

On the one hand, Beijing has been insinuating that the US government is intent on stemming or even sabotaging China's rise, thus ensuring its own political and economic hegemony. President Obama's "rebalancing" of US foreign policy towards Asia - including a shift of diplomatic and military resources - has given the Chinese even more reason to become suspicious.

In this photo taken Dec. 16, 2011 and released by U.S. Navy, its aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits through the Pacific Ocean. Lincoln, underway on deployment to the 5th and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility, is changing homeports from Everett, Wash. to Norfolk, Va. following deployment for a periodic refueling complex overhaul, the navy said. ((Photo: AP)

Obama's "rebalancing" of US includes a shift of diplomatic and military resources towards Asia

On the other hand, the Washington is increasingly wary of the possibility of China dominating Asia - at the expense of American influence and interests. Strategists believe US-China ties will take on the form of a zero-sum game rather than a win-win situation. Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations is cautiously optimistic that the two nations will be able to overcome their mutual distrust.

Economy told DW that in order to re-establish trust the two parties must find a common ground. The China expert added, however, that this might be a long-term process requiring common values and policy approaches.

But Economy also emphasized that the US is not the only country having trust issues with the Chinese. She said other nations are also having disputes with Beijing over intellectual property theft, cyber intrusions and territorial limits.

Growing political influence

For many years the Chinese chose not to play a major part in international affairs. The dictum followed by the late reformist leader Deng Xiaoping stated that China should "hide its light under a bushel and wait for the appropriate moment." After decades of economic growth it is likely that China's newly appointed leadership considers now to be the right time.

The German political scientist Eberhard Sandschneider considers it to be natural for states to translate their strong economic performance into political influence and military might.

Spending some 'quality time'

He told DW that states with powerful economies gradually become active in the international arena and start developing global interests. "We will have to get used to the idea that China will play an increasingly active role in world affairs," he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with China's Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, in this February 14, 2012 file photo. China will be attempting to meet charm with charm for the first time when new President Xi Jinping sheds his suit and tie for an unprecedented, informal summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in the California desert the week of June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

Xi met Obama during a visit to the US in 2012

The expert believes that it is prudent for the US and China to get to know each other's objectives better in order to avoid misunderstandings or even conflict.

The meeting in California is therefore a "great opportunity" for Obama and Xi to spend some "quality time" together and build mutual trust, Sandschneider added. However, these will not be the first face-to-face talks held between the two leaders. Xi travelled to the US in 2012 as vice president and leader-in-waiting.