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Xi-Obama: The Good-Enough Summit

by Elizabeth C. Economy
June 10, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk the grounds at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California on June 8, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters) U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk the grounds at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California on June 8, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters)


By most any measure, the Sunnylands summit cast some sunshine on the U.S.-China relationship. The optics were positive with plenty of snapshots of the two presidents walking, talking, and smiling. President Obama even referred to the talks as “terrific.” There were the usual agreements to talk more and to meet more, and both presidents reaffirmed the need and desire of the two countries to work together more effectively.

Clearly Washington and Beijing planned and executed well—that alone represented a sharp break from past precedent. Recent summits have been plagued by missteps. Remember the 2006 summit between Presidents Hu Jintao and George W. Bush in Washington, DC, when the PRC national anthem was announced as the Republic of China anthem. And who can forget the stunning lack of hospitality exhibited by the Chinese at the 2009 summit when, among other unfortunate happenings, Beijing reneged on its promise to televise President Obama’s town hall in Shanghai?

This time around, the Chinese were nothing if not gracious. They produced a deliverable on one of the United States’ hot button issues—North Korea—even before the summit began. After Xi Jinping met with a North Korean envoy in late May, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un offered to conduct high-level talks with South Korea. While causality cannot be proved, the sequence of events is certainly suggestive. In addition, in a rare return to the type of human rights diplomacy of earlier summits, Beijing granted passports to two relatives of blind-lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who sought asylum in the United States just a year ago and currently resides in New York City, and released Chinese-born U.S. scientist Hu Zhicheng, who had been held in China for five years on charges of stealing secrets.

Niceties aside, the Xi-Obama summit represents only the first step toward getting the U.S.-China bilateral relationship on more solid footing. For real progress in the relationship, there will have to be real progress across the wide range of issues that continue to bedevil the two countries. The two sides made some small progress on climate change, signing an agreement to cooperate on eliminating HFCs. The tougher issues remain, however. Cyber hacking has been relegated to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, where issues generally experience a slow and painful death without actually ever dying. President Obama offered some optimistic remarks to the effect that the United States and China will increasingly have common cause on issues of cyber espionage as China’s intellectual property (IP) develops. After two decades of countless American officials and analysts arguing that as soon as China develops its own IP, Beijing will better protect that of others, I would guess that President Obama should probably not hold his breath on that one.

Conflicts in the East and South China Sea—among the most challenging issues the two countries face at the moment—were not addressed explicitly in the presidents’ summit remarks. And it is difficult to know whether to expect any real progress on the endless range of trade and investment issues to which both presidents and their representatives referred.

At the heart of the summit, however, was President Xi’s desire to be treated with respect and to have China and the United States forge a “new relationship among major powers.” President Xi got half of his wish. Certainly President Obama treated President Xi with respect; however he resisted Chinese efforts to elevate the U.S.-China relationship beyond that of the United States’ relations with its allies. While President Obama acknowledged that the two countries needed to have a “new model of cooperation,” he carefully avoided the Chinese phraseology of a “new model of major country relationships.”

While perhaps not the best outcome for President Xi, President Obama has it right. A special partnership of the sort that China seeks can only arise after the two countries have achieved a series of policy successes premised on common values and approaches. Until then, the leaders and people of both countries should be pleased that the summit was good enough: it brought a new more positive energy to the bilateral relationship, stressed cooperation as opposed to conflict, and offered a few of the win-wins that have been so scarce in recent years.

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