The Sunnylands summit earlier this month between Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama did not produce specific policy outcomes or commitments, but it came at a crucial time–just a few months following China’s once-a-decade national leadership transition and when the Obama administration’s new Asian team is assessing what it can realistically accomplish in the remainder of Obama’s second term. The meeting therefore has provided a valuable foundation on which to improve ties, even if moving from benign principles and statements of intent to concrete results will prove challenging.
Obama and Xi had several major objectives for their meeting: building personal trust; halting the negative momentum in China-U.S. relations; reducing tensions on disputed issues; signaling to domestic and international audiences that the United States and China can work together even on their most difficult questions; and presenting the summit as an important foreign policy success.
Both governments characterized the summit as “successful and constructive” in achieving these objectives. Tom Donilon, Obama’s National Security Advisor, described the encounter as “positive and constructive, wide-ranging and quite successful in achieving the goals that we set forth for this meeting.”
Likewise, PRC State Councilor Yang Jiechi said the summit was of “strategic, constructive and historic significance [and] will have a positive impact on the future development of China-U.S. ties and on the peace, stability and prosperity in the region and across the world as well.”
Themes of mutual-cooperation, development, and peace dominated the public dialogue, which also lacked the snafus and embarrassing incidents that marred previous summits. In addition, the meeting seems to have blunted the escalating confrontation between China and the United States on some issues—though the Snowden affair is now unhelpfully aggravating their cyber security dialogue.
With regards to the Diaoyu and South China Sea issues, President Xi emphasized China’s insistence on safeguarding its national sovereignty while concurrently calling for responsible action and constructive dialogue by all parties. Xi and Obama also pledged to work with other countries to reduce the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons in order to limit global climate change. The two governments punted the thorny issue of cyber security by agreeing to create a working group to search for concrete solutions for their bureaucracies to consider. They also issued general, positive statements affirming the importance of maintaining Asia-Pacific stability and promoting regional economic growth.
Both sides bluntly stated that North Korea must denuclearize and that neither country considered a nuclear-armed North Korea acceptable. Indeed, the summit coincided with a change in tone by Pyongyang, from confrontational rhetoric to calls for peace and dialogue. Chinese pressure on Pyongyang likely played a role in this benign development, which now needs to be reinforced.
That said, the prominence of cyber security and other issues may have diluted the crucial importance of the Korean issue, which should be seen as existential for future China-U.S. ties. Their relationship will never become a true partnership as long as Beijing is seen as backing a regime in Pyongyang that is threatening to destroy the United States in a nuclear war.
Importantly, Obama and Xi discussed how to address the crucial “rising power problem”—that China’s growing economic and military potential will trigger a U.S. response that could lead to a confrontation between these rising and currently dominant global powers. Xi reaffirmed his wish to work with Washington to develop a “new model of great power relations” characterized by cooperation rather than confrontation.
The new Chinese administration was able to communicate and clarify Beijing’s vision of a mutual beneficial relationship with the United States. Washington was able to reaffirm its eagerness to harness China’s rising power to the general benefit of the international community, by having Beijing back general principles—peaceful resolution of disputes, respect for intellectual property, and so forth –that are of global interest.
Xi also suggested some core principles that should govern the China-U.S. relationship: make better use of existing inter-governmental dialogue and communication mechanisms; open new channels of cooperation through technological exchanges and trade; coordinate more effectively China and U.S. policies on international issues; and establish “a new pattern of military relations compatible with the new pattern of relationship between the two great powers of China and America.” The last clause represents an unusual endorsement of expanding bilateral military relations, a long-standing U.S. objective that China’s national security community has regarded with indifference if not distrust.
The summit discussed many of the difficult issues that have generated tension in their relationship, including cyber attacks, intellectual property rights protection, territorial disputes, and North Korea. Now the two governments must move from general talk and symbolism to concrete measures that reduce the real differences that still divide the two sides.
Progress on at least some of these questions is essential for realizing Xi’s admirable goal of achieving a “new model of great power relations” and for decreasing that mutual “trust deficit” that both sides acknowledge still persists.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.