Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University.
The most important global issue in the next decade will be how the United States and China manage their increasingly complex and potentially fractious relationship. While expectations are well under control, the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Washington on Sept. 25 will put a spotlight on how relations may evolve. The visit comes at a time when China's aspirations to be respected as an ascending great power clash with perceptions that America's global influence is in decline.
Both President Xi and U.S. President Barack Obama face challenges at home. The Chinese leader is confronting serious headwinds over his economic reforms that could threaten his political authority at the top of his country's political and military entities. Meanwhile, as the clock on Mr. Obama's presidency runs down, the political focus in Washington is shifting to the elections next year.
The atmosphere in the United States is not propitious for a constructive summit. Led most bombastically by Donald Trump, the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination are openly bashing China over cyberattacks, currency manipulation and job-stealing to a point where the charged rhetoric leaves little room for strategy or rational dialogue. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders plays a similar populist drum while the erstwhile front-runner, Hillary Clinton, struggles to maintain a suitably tough posture.
It is always easier to draw attention away from real problems at home by creating foreign scapegoats on whom all blame can be allocated. As Albert Einstein observed in a different context: "Any nonsense can attain importance by virtue of being believed by millions of people."
The risk is that irrational rhetoric, if unchallenged, can trigger a spiral of recrimination where prudent judgment and pragmatic proposals about how mutual interests – whether economic or security – can be advanced fall by the wayside.
Feeling the increasing pressure to act against cyberhacking by China, Mr. Obama talked about economic sanctions, but, when Beijing threatened to cancel Mr. Xi's visit, the U.S. President predictably relented. The two sides are now negotiating a no-first-use cyberweapons agreement on critical infrastructure. China knows that the United States still has much more combined military, cyber and financial power to muster, but it also recognizes that there is less cohesion between America's public and private sectors to make that power truly effective.
China is not involved in the immediate Middle East crisis: the battle against the Islamic State and the plight of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, the latter being a problem on which the United States is also essentially a bystander. However, Iran, buoyed by its recent nuclear accord with the United States, is now actively courting China, as well as Russia, to get more involved in the region.
China continues to unnerve many Asian neighbours, including allies of the United States, by its military exercises in the South China Sea while manufacturing islands in defence of territorial claims that are as unsettling as they are unpredictable.
But China has a major stake in Asia Pacific security in general and North Korea in particular, where its interests should be similar to those of the United States and its allies. So there is some scope for constructive dialogue on security if there is the will. No one stands to benefit from reckless acts emanating from Pyongyang.
The United States may also want to use Mr. Xi's visit to explain that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is not really a "contain-China" strategy but could be a template of sorts to abate some of the bilateral friction on economic irritants, such as cyberspace attacks.
Nonetheless, this will most likely be a "marking-time" summit. Not much will be resolved or enhanced, but there is at least an opportunity to lower the rhetoric and reflect soberly on mutual interests at stake.
Regardless of both Mr. Xi's visit to the United States and the Oct. 19 federal election here at home, Canada should also come to terms with its own strategic objectives vis-à-vis China. Our commercial relations are essentially treading water at a time when, despite recent market convulsions, China's economy continues to grow at a robust 6 per cent, generating opportunities for Canadian goods and services. The TPP will complement the Canada-Korea free trade agreement, but a coherent outreach to China is essential sooner rather than later.
We are also deeply concerned about cybersecurity and should register specific human-rights concerns. In fact, by engaging forthrightly in commercial negotiations with what will soon be the world's largest economy, we will strengthen our ability to be heard on such concerns.