Can U.S. And China Carve Out Peaceful Future In Asia?

As President Obama meets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, many experts hope this will be the start of something new: regular high-level contacts. History shows it is always dangerous when established powers face rising powers.

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When President Obama hosts his Chinese counterpart later this week, there won't be any of the usual pomp of a formal state visit. Instead, it is billed as a working summit at an estate in Southern California. The White House and many China experts hope this will give both men a chance to build up some trust in a relationship filled with suspicions. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Kevin Rudd has reason to worry about the big power rivalry between the U.S. and China.

KEVIN RUDD: Well, I'm a former prime minister of Australia and former foreign minister. And I spent most of my adult professional life studying China - its language, its history and its politics. And for those of us in Australia and those of us who live in Asia, this is bottom line stuff: Can America and China carve out a peaceful future together in Asia, or are we on a trajectory towards conflict?

KELEMEN: Rudd says it's easy to look at history and come to the conclusion that conflict is inevitable between a rising power and an established one, but he's hoping China and the U.S. will figure out a way to build up trust. And he thinks that could begin with regular summits.

RUDD: What's interesting is that President Xi Jinping, in the last 12 months, has called for - to use his own terms - a new type of great power relationship. In Chinese, it's (foreign language spoken). And if you're in China now, you will see this term, this phrase, used very extensively across the public policy debate.

KELEMEN: The former Australian leader has some ideas for how the U.S. and Chinese leaders can build that new relationship.

RUDD: They need to agree on a very limited number of projects which the two can cooperate on in order to build trust - in the security area, in the economic area and also, I believe, in the climate change area.

KELEMEN: The White House has set aside plenty of time for the two men to talk. And Xi is a new kind of Chinese leader - less scripted and comfortable with give and take, says Jeff Bader, who worked on China policy in the Obama administration's first term and is now with the Brookings Institution.

JEFF BADER: That's part of the big story here is that he was willing to have a meeting in California, not in Washington, not a state visit, no 21 gun salute, no White House welcoming ceremony, no state dinner. The Chinese have always felt that the celebratory and protocol aspects of the visit were a big part of what the meeting was about in terms of their demonstrating to their own public that they're treated with respect. Xi Jinping is apparently sufficiently comfortable and doesn't feel he needs that.

KELEMEN: Bader says he's used to U.S./China meetings with dozens of officials and bleachers in the back. But this summit will be smaller and may not get bogged down in the usual talking points.

BADER: You know, the White House always likes to say before meetings that it's not about deliverables, you know, it's about relationship. It happens to be true in this case.

KELEMEN: White House officials say there will be a broad agenda including issues like trade, cyber security and North Korea. Former Australian Prime Minister Rudd is hoping the two presidents will ask their militaries to work on clear rules for navies in the East China and South China Seas.

RUDD: That's a practical step forward. And that's one of the ways in which you can also help to reduce strategic distrust, increase bilateral trust between China and the U.S., and take some of the tension out of what is, frankly, an emerging regional powder keg.

KELEMEN: There are plenty of irritants that could derail this relationship. But Rudd is urging Presidents Obama and Xi to take a longer view and begin to set out a roadmap for big power relations. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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