Argument

Paranoid Republic

No summit can bridge the political gap between Washington and Beijing.

China and the United States simply don't trust one another. And nothing seems to change that, no matter how many high-level exchanges, strategic dialogues, informal consultations, and summits the two countries hold.

Frequent meetings between senior U.S. and Chinese officials indicate the importance of the bilateral relations, but little else, and in fact, the imbalance between high-level engagement and actual output has grown worse in recent years. Meeting after meeting has yielded almost no progress on the most critical issues that undermine mutual trust and cooperation, such as cybersecurity, Chinese military modernization, Asian regional security, and China's domestic economic policy.

So is there any way this weekend's informal summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and new Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California will be productive? The media will understandably focus on whether progress is made on specific issues, such as the much-publicized cyberattacks on U.S. companies and government entities, allegedly perpetrated by the Chinese military, and North Korea, which has engaged in a series of provocations against South Korea and the United States in recent months. But as for the broader relationship, it will be hard for either country to accept the other country's professed strategic objectives. Chinese political elites simply do not believe repeated declarations by U.S. presidents in that the United States does not seek to contain China, while Washington receives China's pledge of "peaceful development" with incredulity.

The vast gap between the two countries' political systems makes trust impossible. The Chinese Communist Party does not hide its hostility to and fear of the political values -- freedom, human rights, political competition, and constitutional rule -- that underpin American democracy. In the eyes of the Chinese ruling elites, the United States presents a political threat, even though they understand that a full-fledged military conflict between two nuclear-armed great powers is extremely unlikely. Chinese leaders feel so endangered by U.S. soft power that they are now even orchestrating a propaganda campaign against constitutionalism.

This threat perception has created its own reality. China's ruling elites know very well that China's economic rise would not have happened as fast or as successfully without U.S. help, which included bestowing Most-Favored Nation trading status on China, supporting its 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization, and awarding scholarships for hundreds and thousands of Chinese students, among other factors. Still, such awareness does not prevent them from insisting, almost daily, that "hostile Western forces" seek China's destruction.

For the U.S. political establishment, a repressive one-party state is simply illegitimate. Its opacity, lack of constraints on its power, and capriciousness make it difficult to understand and even more difficult to trust.

Since the fundamental differences between the two political systems are almost certain to continue in the foreseeable future, the United States and China need to cooperate without the luxury of strategic trust. Most people might argue, understandably, that such cooperation is impossible. But this does not need to be the case.

To build a new strategic relationship, both sides should construct similar rules of the game in the national security arena -- not ceremonial and unproductive military-to-military exchanges, but substantive and enforceable agreements governing the most important aspects of national security. A short list might include cyber security, nuclear weapons, naval operations, space weapons, and territorial disputes. This list, while ambitious, is not unrealistic. Both countries need such agreements (although China still needs the United States more than the other way around). These accords will also serve to moderate and even prevent frictions and accidents between the world's two largest militaries.

The good news is that Xi has signaled that he wants a new relationship with the United States. He declared in May that the Sino-U.S. relationship is at a "critical juncture." Although he didn't elaborate, he is probably aware of many of the downside risks of a Sino-American relationship left on autopilot.  But steadying a relationship adrift requires that Xi invest some of his political capital. As a more self-confident and assertive leader, now in control of the Chinese military, Xi should prioritize improving the security relationship with the United States and building on such improvement to show that U.S.-China cooperation on security issues is possible even without strategic trust. Besides pushing his colleagues to support a more wide-ranging and bold initiative on security cooperation with Washington, Xi must accompany this initiative with an immediate change of policy on territorial disputes. China will have to moderate its rhetoric and positions to reduce tensions with its neighbors. As long as such tensions persist, China cannot expect to have stable and productive ties with the United States.

Obama can provide valuable incentives for Xi to undertake such a reset. Fine-tuning the much-touted U.S. pivot to Asia to de-emphasize its military focus will be a good start. The reinvigoration of the U.S. strategic engagement in East Asia since mid-October has been a resounding success in reassuring Asian nations of the United States' commitment to the region's peace and stability, but it also has exacerbated tensions with China, where both elites and ordinary people view the move as an overt attempt to contain a rising superpower. Even though it may be difficult to persuade Chinese leaders steeped in realpolitik to view U.S. policy more benignly, complementing the pivot with more diplomatic and multilateral initiatives could ease tensions. Washington may want to extend an olive branch to Beijing by encouraging China to apply to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new free-trade zone viewed in Beijing as a bloc designed to exclude China.

Obama must also make it clear to Xi, however, that the future of U.S.-China relations depends on the political evolution inside China. Progress on political openness, rule of law, and respect for human rights in China will lay the foundations of strategic trust in U.S.-China relations. The continuation of one-party rule will make such trust unattainable and strategic rivalry unavoidable. Is that the kind of tough message the president is prepared to deliver?

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Argument

Syria Is Now Saudi Arabia's Problem

The battle for a town on the Lebanese border marks the kingdom's first attempt to lead Syria's fractured opposition.

Hezbollah can finally claim a victory in Syria. The town of Qusayr, adjacent to the Lebanese border, has fallen to the Lebanese militia after nearly a month of fierce battles with Syrian rebels. Dozens of Hezbollah's fighters have been killed, despite air cover and ground support from Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Qusayr battle has been constantly, and wrongly, described as a turning point in the Syrian war. Why has this small town of some 30,000 residents become "strategic," as it is constantly described in the press, all of a sudden? The town had previously been run by its Sunni residents for more than a year, with little mention of its strategic benefits.

Hezbollah's open military intervention in Syria partly explains the publicity the Qusayr battle has received. As a result, the "Party of God" has lost much of its political and ideological capital in the region -- a capital the militia had painstakingly acquired from its three-decade career of "resisting" Israel.

But beyond the supposed military benefits of Qusayr, the battle for the town carried important consequences for the balance of power within the Syrian opposition. Qusayr is arguably the first battle in Syria to be completely sponsored by Saudi Arabia, marking the kingdom's first foray outside its sphere of influence along the Jordanian border. Riyadh has now taken over Qatar's role as the rebels' primary patron: In one sense, the Saudis can also claim a victory in Qusayr, as they have successfully put various rebel forces under the command of their ally in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idriss.

Although the Syrian rebels received military aid from various countries and private donors, Qatar initially emerged as the main sponsor of the opposition. Its alliance with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood helped it control the political opposition and the armed rebels' most prominent factions, including Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo.

But under increased pressure from the Untied States, Qatar has recently handed over the "Syrian dossier" to Saudi Arabia. Members of the Syrian opposition coalition made a two-day visit last month to Riyadh for the first time to coordinate with the Saudis. The opposition's delegates were asked by Riyadh to restructure the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for the opposition, which they bitterly did three weeks later.

In response, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its aid. Riyadh provided the rebels with 35 tons of weapons, though the kingdom failed to provide them with the better-quality arms the FSA's chief of staff had requested. Significantly, Liwa al-Tawhid joined the battles in Qusayr -- a significant step, because the militia had always worked closely, and almost exclusively, with the Qataris and the Brotherhood. According to Gulf sources close to the Syrian opposition, Liwa al-Tawhid's commander, Abdulqader al-Saleh, has recently met with representatives of Saudi intelligence to coordinate military activities. Rebel fighters from Aleppo's Military Council and from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor also joined the battles.

The kingdom's clients have been making progress on the political level as well: Idriss has recently acquired wide-ranging powers within the Syrian National Coalition. Sources familiar with the opposition's talks in Istanbul last month told me the general was given a veto over the 14 provincial representatives from Syria's provinces, in addition to the 15 seats given to the Free Syrian Army. These combined 29 seats -- added to the eight seats given to the opposition figure Michel Kilo and 13 to the Democratic List, an alliance essentially backed by Riyadh -- significantly expanded Saudi Arabia's influence on the coalition and undermined the previous dominance of the Brotherhood.

The opposition's talks in Istanbul lasted for more than a week, and the coalition's Brotherhood-dominated General Assembly first refused to accept the expansion plan, despite ferocious pressure from Western ambassadors and representatives from the Gulf states. But according to Gulf sources, the coalition members were given an ultimatum a day before they finally accepted the expansion plan -- either accept it or Idriss would announce the creation of an FSA political wing that would supersede the coalition altogether. The General Assembly members backed down and accepted an even worse deal than what had initially been proposed.

To be sure, the Saudis could not have bolstered their leverage within the opposition without help from countries like the United States and Jordan. Riyadh works closely with almost all the players in the Syrian conflict, barring Qatar and Turkey. Contrary to popular belief, the kingdom supports moderate groups within the Syrian rebels to counter the influence of the Brotherhood and its Qatari patrons. As a result, Saudi Arabia's increased influence may help temper some of the rising fears of extremist trends within the armed opposition. Of course, the kingdom also supports Salafi-leaning groups to counter jihadi groups such as the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Washington has recently stepped up financial monitoring efforts to ensure that any aid to the Syrian rebels goes through Idriss, according to informed sources from the Gulf. These measures will of course be difficult to enforce, owing to the activities of private donors with established channels with the Syrian rebels -- and also due to the poorly regulated financial institutions of some countries, such as Kuwait. But they nevertheless mark an attempt to empower Idriss, and consequently the Saudis.

Nonetheless, Qatar can still pull a few strings within the opposition. A Syrian activist told me that Turkey-based representatives from Qatar had declined to meet a rebel group from Idlib a week before the opposition's talks in Istanbul. But after the expansion of the coalition, the representatives called the group back and apparently provided it with the ammunition it needed. Doha's influence may have decreased, but it can still use its established channels to maintain leverage over armed groups.

As it consolidates its takeover of the opposition, another factor that favors the Saudis is its tentative rapprochement with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal met last month with the Brotherhood's deputy leader, Mohammed Tayfour, for the first time. The Brotherhood had requested the meeting to mend its relations with the kingdom, which had shunned the group and stated privately on more than one occasion that it rejects the Brotherhood's dominance of Syria. The meeting was not an indication that the kingdom has opened it heart to the Brotherhood, as some have argued, but was meant to contain the group as Riyadh takes over from Qatar.

Still, the Saudis currently have little leeway to exercise their newfound influence. Washington and Moscow are still intent on organizing a "Geneva 2" conference, intended to bring together representatives from the Syrian regime and the opposition to reach a negotiated settlement. The preparations for Geneva 2 have meant that military options, such as increased aid for the rebels, are on pause until the talks take place or fail.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah's victory in Qusayr was inevitable, but not the end of the story. Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of the battles in this formerly obscure town marks a new beginning of warfare in Syria -- one many hope will add a sense of unity to rebel ranks and empower moderate opposition forces.

FREDERIC LAFARGUE/AFP/Getty Images