The Xi-Obama summit has to be viewed as a success for one reason that was actually a post-summit sideshow far beyond the lovely confines of Sunnylands at Rancho Mirage in southern California.
That was the meeting between negotiators of North and South Korea in the “truce village” of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone that’s divided the two Koreas since the Korean War. The negotiators met the day after the two presidents wound up what the media’s calling the “shirtsleeve summit” with an agreement for ministerial level talks in Seoul. Ok, those talks, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, fizzled when neither North nor South could agree on who might quality as “ministerial.” When it became clear that the leader of the North Korean delegation would be a notch below, the South said, fine, we’ll send our vice minister of unification. The North took that as an insult and called off the whole show – for now. Now the question is when, how, or if the talks will happen.
The reason the North-South talks are such a crucial dividend of that summit is the North Koreans would never have agreed to them at all had it not been for the unsettling specter of the leader of their great protector and ally jetting off to California to see the leader of their worst enemy. Only a few weeks ago the North Koreans were refusing talks with the South Koreans, with whom they’ve had no official dialogue in more than two years.
For Pyongyang, the roof was caving in on the elaborate structure that North Korean strategists had fashioned for months including their third underground nuclear test, the test-firing of missiles, phantasmagorical threats of a nuclear holocaust hitting the U.S., and hyped-up descriptions of the Korean peninsula as in a “state of war.” The imagery went – poof – in smoke as China’s President Xi Jinping chose to spend eight hours in chit-chat with President Obama – a prelude to hosting South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, not North Korea’s “Supreme” but untested “Leader” Kim Jong-un later this month.
The North Korean humiliation was all the worse in view of the stage effects surrounding the summit. What were the presidents of the world’s most powerful nations doing in those glaring white shirts, savoring each other’s company as they sought to head off looming crises? Aren’t such encounters supposed to begin with leaders marching side by side before rows of troops in their finest dress uniforms to the din of bugles and trumpets? And don’t the leaders then sit down to formal dinners marked by toasts and speeches and applause from audiences of notables in equally resplendent costume.
Imagine, then, the choreographed informality of the Obama-Xi summit as the protagonists – interlocutors – talked for hours after traveling from their distant capitals, Obama five hours away from Washington, Xi a dozen hours from Beijing. Surely this rendezvous, highly scripted though it was, has to go down in the history books as, well, “historic.”
In the end, however, quite aside from agreement on the need to rein in North Korea, the net result of all the talking may not have been all that great. Probably the best you can say about this strangest of summits was that it happened, the worst that the two may not have accomplished that much despite the outpouring of self-praise – the meetings were “terrific,” said Obama; they “blazed a new trail,” said Xi foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi.
But were they and did they? Obama spent a lot of time on cyber espionage and cyber theft that the Americans accuse the Chinese of committing; Xi and his aides were equally firm in saying the problem was overblown and others, meaning the Americans, were also guilty.
As for seeing eye to eye on North Korea, wasn’t whatever they said a reaffirmation, a rehash, of what they’d said before – topped off by the great coincidence of the talks at Panmunjom?
Certainly North Korea would not have reopened the North-South hotline across the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom if the Chinese had been going along with the North’s rhetoric. Nor would North and South Koreans have been talking at Panmunjom about reopening the economic zone at Kaesong, the whole point of the meeting, had the Chinese not gotten across the message that closing it was not a good idea for an economy in a perpetual state of failure.
No, the Chinese, it seems, weren’t interested in finding jobs for the 53,000 North Korean workers who got laid off when the North ordered closure of the zone in a fit of pique over claims that Pyongyang needed Kaesong for all the money it was making from the South Korean companies with factories there. Nor did the Chinese want to invest in their own enterprises in the North if war really was in danger of breaking out as the North was claiming.
So weak was the position of the North Koreans that they could not even stick by their earlier demand to hold the talks at Kaesong — that is, on their side of the line — rather than in the DMZ.
But all that stuff was decided on before Obama and Xi exchanged their first greetings. As noteworthy as what was said during and after the Obama-Xi talks was what was not said.
Did Obama press the issue of China’s claims to “sovereignty” over the South China Sea? And did he raise the topic of China’s challenging Japanese control over those disputed islets that the Japanese call the Senkakus and Chinese say are the Diaoyu? The U.S., after all, has pledged to defend them under terms of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.
Obama and Xi had to have been thinking of all that when Obama talked of the need for “protocols” on “military issues.” That diplomatic turn of phrase was by way of saying U.S. warships have the right to go into the South China Sea any time, that the Chinese don’t own the sea, and the issue is not that of ”sovereignty.”
No sooner were the talks over than Chinese commentators were on China Central Television, talking optimistically about the meaning of the summit but saying everyone had to understand China’s right to the South China Sea.
The most positive meaning of “protocols” seems to be that China won’t disturb “foreign” ships in those waters while maintaining its claim — and won’t for a moment consider compromise on the islands that it already holds, the Paracels, claimed by Vietnam, and all the Spratlys, some of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. As for the Senkakus, the best one can hope for is the Japanese won’t use real cannon rather than water cannon to drive off intruding Chinese fishing boats and research vessels and those Chinese “research vessels” won’t fire back in return.
If the American and Chinese presidents didn’t change much of anything, at least they may have kept matters from getting worse. Historians will want to contemplate that aspect of the summit especially if future leaders some day reverse course and decide instead to engage in tough invective from capitals half way around the world from each other.
For Obama and Xi, the chance to engage in hours of friendly conversation in a beautiful setting may have been one way to set the course for peace and tranquility in a region often shocked by war and crisis. No crisis has appeared more imminent of late than that of the dreaded Second Korean War that could flare into a regional Armageddon. Obama and Xi appear to have made sure that’s not going to happen – not as long as talking nice between them seems far preferable to talking tough.
Donald Kirk is a veteran journalist with decades of experience living and working in Asia.