The Problem With the Bilateral "Summit"

Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington this week is being widely billed in the media as a "summit" with Barack Obama, and that fact may be more important -- and more disturbing -- than anything that transpires.

It's great that Hu is visiting, of course. But the precedent that such visits should be big-time summits in the style of U.S.-Soviet meetings in their heyday and that major issues should be primarily addressed in bilateral fora is a bad one. Embracing "the summit" may seem appealing in the short term, but Sino-American bilateralism is a poor strategy for a world in which China will all but inevitably amass an economy larger than the United States' in the near future. Our long-term interests are much better served by almost any conceivable decision-making process other than so-called G2 summits with China. The short-term frustrations of pursuing a policy of robust multilateralism should not distract attention from the urgent need to do the hard work.

The core issue, to be a bit flip, is that the United States of America has a posse.

Or at least we do potentially. If the world were to fundamentally divide into a China-led half and an America-led half, we would end up with the bigger half by far. Essentially, all of Europe would be with us. So would Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. So would India, Brazil, and Mexico. The vast majority of the world's populous and influential countries these days are liberal democracies with values more in common with America than with China. What's more, geography favors us with regard to many autocracies -- such as Vietnam, Thailand, and probably even Russia -- that are much closer to China and thus have much more to fear from it than they do from us. China's allies in such a scenario would be a motley band led by North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and smatterings of Africa and Central Asia.

Advantage: USA.

Of course, in a bilateral meeting, it's also advantage USA. China, for all its amazing progress over the past 20 years is still much poorer than the United States. Indeed, it's so much poorer that despite its vast population, China's aggregate gross domestic product is less than half of ours. What's more, GDP is only a measure of current output. In the real world, things produced in the past count, too, and we've already built up an enormous stockpile of aircraft carriers, nuclear missiles, and highly trained personnel. America, in other words, is No. 1.

This No. 1 status makes bilateralism tempting. Working out a unified front with a broad coalition of countries is annoying. Much weaker allies will try to free ride. What's more, any accord reached between the United States and China is likely to win the support of the rest of the world. Under the circumstances, it's very tempting to say foreign policy should just be hashed out between the world's two most important countries and everyone else can take a memo.

The problem is that America's No. 1 status is eroding much faster than is generally realized.

It's true that as of 2011 our GDP is a bit more than double China's. But as recently as 2001, it was more like eight times China's. The Economist predicts that we'll likely be overtaken in 2019 and has a neat tool that lets you adjust assumptions. You can see that on almost any plausible account, the surpassing will take place some time in the next five to 15 years. Most likely Obama will be out of office by the time it happens, but it's very possible that he'll be the last president to be able to say clearly that the United States is the world's leading economy. We'll still retain a military edge for a while, of course, but I don't think anyone wants to see the U.S.-China relationship dominated by efforts at military coercion.

That means that more and more, we'll want to rely on our posse. In a world where America is No. 2, suddenly a "G3" meeting between China, the United States, and the European Union looks appealing. So does the United Nations Security Council or a broad summit of Pacific Rim countries. Indeed, just about any multilateral forum would do a good job of leveraging the enduring advantage provided by our favorable geographic position and broadly appealing values.

But the time to start switching to such fora isn't 2025 or 2030 when our economic and military advantages have ebbed. It's right now -- or, ideally, 10 or 15 years ago -- while our strengths still endure and we can lock favorable precedents into place. So let's hope this week's meetings go well, but let's also hope they mark the last time the administration highlights bilateral summits as the key to U.S.-China relations.

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