CHARLES E. MORRISON WRITES – Predictions of the outcomes of the Trump-Xi Jinping meeting in Florida range from a looming disaster to a rosy new beginning.  Of course, both leaders will claim success as a bad meeting helps neither, but true success is measured in the longer-term against expectations.  These need to be realistic, concrete, and undertaken through a step-by-step, results-oriented process.

U.S. Asia policy has seen remarkable continuity between Republican and Democratic administration and consensus among the mostly D.C.-based Asian experts who staffed them.   This consensus has several key points: that with Asia’s huge population (more than the rest of the world combined), size and dynamism of its economies, and the continent’s many impacts on our society, the United States has an enormous stake in the region; that because the US does not want any other single power to dominate Asia and because its presence and alliance system are essential to regional security, we must be firmly committed and deeply engaged; and that our engagement must be comprehensive, involving an appropriate balance of security, diplomatic, economic, and people-to-people initiatives.

There is less agreement on how to pursue these interests, but based on four decades of interaction with the region, I would offer several points:

First, it is basically impossible to force another country to do something not perceived to be in its own interests.  We were unable to force even the highly dependent former South Vietnamese government to fall in line with US policy, and neither sanctions nor inducements have had significant impact on small and poor North Korea.

Second, one needs to be direct, blunt and tough in private, making clear the red lines and their rationale, but public shaming of foreign leaders (a loss of “face”) or disparaging remarks about their countries are almost always counterproductive.  Even non-democracies have vigorous social media and intense, reactive nationalisms.  Frequently, our public criticisms are seized on elsewhere as one-sided, wrong, disrespectful, and contrary to some practice or policy of our own country (however obscure), and thus only adds to resistance to working together.

Third, a country’s brand name is all important to its ability to influence others.  Brand, or moral authority, is based on such factors as principles, steadfastness to commitments, and gravitas of leaders.   Unpredictability is a strategy only for small countries.  Vision is closely related – presence and policy need to be anchored in a vision based on enlightened national interests.  “Rebalance” and “win-win” are not visions, but a ruled-based world, fair to all, is.

In the 1980s, I joined a commission of US and Japanese private sector leaders at the White House to talk about their work on Japan-US relations at a time of huge tensions.  President Reagan listened with interest to their work program and then encouraged them, saying that it would be disastrous if the two countries were in conflict, but if the world’s then two largest economies could work together “nothing would be impossible.”  It was visionary, simple, and inspirational.  Since he didn’t go into details, no one could quibble, but it was clear what he expected.

My hope for the Trump-Xi meeting would be to set a high level of longer-term expectations for now two largest economies.  Obviously, as the first meeting, it is about leaders and new staffs getting to know and take the measure of each other and establishing respect.  But it is also about setting expectations.  To be results oriented, the broad vision will need to be honed and connected with action-oriented processes and timelines.enter

In the Asian view, leaders set expectations and task subordinates to work out the details in such critical areas as fair trade and investment, cyber security, or political disputes.

On trade and investment, US objectives should be less about imbalances per se which mostly reflect overall macroeconomic conditions, but about fair and equal opportunity, and building and enforcing rules, which legitimate business everywhere prefers.  On North Korea, it is less about sanctions per se (although a more effective regime could be help) and more about a coordinated strategy to achieve the goal of a reforming regime in Pyongyang that will not endanger other countries or world peace.

Paraphrasing Reagan, if the leaders of these two great economies can commit to productive, cooperative, and action-oriented relationship, there may be no limits of what they might achieve over the coming few years.

Charles E. Morrison is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu.