The halo of the great success of the Beijing APEC Summit had hardly faded when the Xi Jinping-Barack Obama meeting delivered a pleasant surprise. The shortest state visit in the history of China-U.S. relations has yielded important accomplishments that are positive, pragmatic and have far-reaching significance. The process of building a new type of bilateral relationship, which the two leaders initiated in Sunnylands, California last year, has taken a major step forward.
China-U.S. ties are complex. Changes in the two countries’ relative strengths have shaken the previous equilibrium. Disagreements as well as conflicting interests on bilateral, regional and global issues, especially the so-called “security dilemma,” have become hot topics of public discourse. Economic and political conditions in both countries have put pressure on the bilateral ties. Worse, the Democratic Party’s defeat in the mid-term elections has rendered Obama a “lame-duck” president. As to the future of China-U.S. relations, the prevailing prediction is there will be more problems than optimistic anticipations. Clearly, this context for Obama’s second China visit was less than exciting.
Historical experiences told us that this actually isn’t a bad thing. China-U.S. relations have always been developing amid changes and ups and downs. Positive and negative aspects of the ties have taken turns to be focuses of attention, each having its own causes. In the face of changing realities and fresh challenges, the most import thing is to see macro trends clearly, grasp macro issues, maintain a correct direction for the development of bilateral ties, and resolutely march toward set goals. That is where the true significance of the achievements of the Xi-Obama meeting in Beijing lies.
Obama’s brief state visit, less than two days in duration, was comprised of three elaborately designed sections.
First was the long, in-depth talks meant to increase mutual understanding. For leaders of the two countries, which are strikingly different in many ways, to avoid misjudgments in fierce competition in a time of dramatic changes, a proper relationship of mutual understanding and trust must first be built between them. Properly handling disagreements and sensitive issues is crucial to maintaining the stability of China-U.S. relations. President Xi and President Obama’s latest in-depth conversations in Beijing further consolidated the consensus they had reached in Sunnylands. Such informal “in-depth talks” between Xi and Obama will become a frequent new form of communication between the two leaders in dealing with the particular needs of China-U.S. relations in the new era.
Xi and Obama also exchanged ideas about major international issues, and affirmed consensuses and agreements reached. The talks harvested extensive consensuses, and inspiring fruits. It is of essential political and strategic direction-setting significance for the two sides to reiterate the goal of developing a new-type major-country relationship between China and the U.S. The six key dimensions Xi put forward thereby extended and deepened the three-point proposal he made earlier, making them better guidelines. It is worth notice that under the principle of “mutual respect,” there was the explicit proposal to “respect the political system and development path each has chosen.” Meanwhile, putting “refraining from doing things that harm the other side’s core interests” under “manage and control disagreements and sensitive issues in constructive manners” bestows it with practical implications that can be more easily understood. Obama responded positively to Xi’s proposals and suggestions on the spot, stating that the U.S. has the sincerity to build a cooperative, rather than competitive, relationship with China in the Asia-Pacific, and to jointly preserve security and stability in the region.
The new motivations of developing an alternative major-country relationship were not only embodied in the rhetoric of each side, but also in pragmatic action. The “Joint Declaration on Climate Change” the two sides published is a significant milestone. That China and the U.S. released their post-2020 emissions reduction goals ahead of schedule demonstrates the two countries’ resolve and political courage to strengthen coordination and cooperation in dealing with global challenges, which is indeed inspiring. The two sides reached several agreements and agreed on multiple important measures regarding the development of bilateral ties, again highlighting the positive intentions and highly pragmatic nature of the visit.
Also of importance was Xi and Obama’s joint press conference. The two leaders conveyed to the international community their countries’ resolution and confidence to enhance cooperation, which was a very impressive moment. As the host, Xi introduced the “constructive” and “fruitful” talks they had, as well as the “extensive consensuses” they reached. He also concisely expounded China’s open and inclusive Asia-Pacific policies, and emphasized they are mutually complementary with the goals of China-U.S. relations. “Fine China-U.S. cooperation may become ballast for world stability.” This line of Xi’s will be the most important footnote to building the new-type major-country relationship in the future.