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Foreign Policy

Summits: Substance over Photo Ops

Sep 29, 2015
  • Yi Fan

    a Beijing-based political commentator

What do Sunnylands, Yingtai and Blair House have in common? Answer: they are the venues that have hosted the private dinners between President Xi Jinping and President Obama in the last three years. While some critics have described these shirt-sleeves summits as “pomp-heavy”, the truth is: They provide an intimate environment for unscripted discussions between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies.

What do Sunnylands, Yingtai and Blair House have in common? Answer: they are the venues that have hosted the private dinners between President Xi Jinping and President Obama in the last three years.

In June 2013, the newly elected President Xi stopped in California on his way back from a tour of Latin America, and he and President Obama met for more than eight hours, including a walking hour of one-on-one talk. The two presidents agreed to build “a new model of major-country relations” that would steer clear of the “Thucydides’ trap” of conflict between a rising power and an established power. The idea is that by respecting each other’s major concerns, China and the United States can pursue a positive agenda of win-win cooperation. Another notable feature of the Sunnylands meeting is that before they delved into specific economic and security issues, Xi and Obama spent hours discussing their governance philosophies and domestic priorities.

After the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in November 2014, Obama stayed on in China for a state visit. He was invited into the Zhongnanhai leadership compound by Xi, where they had five hours of productive discussions at Yingtai, a picturesque island, including an hour of late-night tete-a-tete. By this time, the two countries have already reaped some “early harvests” from the new model of China-US relations. Building on their Sunnylands discussions, Xi talked about how China’s past experience informs present-day decision-making and Obama explained American values through the lens of history.

Earlier this week, Xi paid a successful state visit to the United States. On the eve of the White House events, Obama took Xi on a short walk from the West Wing to Blair House, where he has never hosted a foreign leader before. Then, flanked by a 17th-century Chinese screen, they sat down for dinner, which lasted three hours. When they separated, both expressed satisfaction with the quality of their conversation and welcomed the greater mutual understanding and trust that resulted from it.

Apart from the good optics of carefully chosen venues and what have been dubbed “power strolls”, the real achievement of these annual summits lies in substance.

At the bilateral level, these regular retreats have become an action-forcing mechanism that drives cooperation and mitigates tension. Examples abound. On all three occasions, the two presidents reiterated their desire to reach a high-standard bilateral investment treaty. After exchanging and revising their respective negative lists, the two sides are working hard toward this goal. For many years, military-to-military ties have been an underdeveloped area of China-US relations. At Sunnylands, Xi proposed two confidence-building mechanisms to change the dynamics. After their Yingtai retreat, he and Obama announced the mutual notification system for major military activities and a code of behavior for the safety of maritime and air encounters. A couple of days ago at the Rose Garden, they announced the broadening of the confidence-building mechanisms to cover more activities. Even on cyber security, widely considered a point of contention in the relationship, Xi and Obama have proven critics wrong by demonstrating a readiness to cooperate in relevant investigations and push international negotiations to establish acceptable norms in cyberspace.

It is now a banality to say that without China-US cooperation, it would be so much harder to manage, still less resolve, many regional hot spots. The Iranian nuclear issue is a case in point. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council enjoying good ties with both Washington and Tehran, China is uniquely placed to facilitate a negotiated settlement. But it has done more. Time and again, Beijing has acted as an honest broker to break the deadlock in P5+1 negotiations. Now, China and the United States are leading efforts to convert Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor, a key part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action inked in July. Closer to home, China and the United States are partnering with each other to train Afghan diplomats and enhance food security in Timor-Leste, decisively rejecting the narrative of China-US competition and contest in the Asia-Pacific region.

One of the under-appreciated facts about China-US relations is the growing cooperation on global challenges, such as the joint response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. A key deliverable at the Sunnylands meeting was the joint pledge to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the “super greenhouse gases”. At Yingtai, Xi and Obama took another step by announcing significant actions to address climate change, a move that was widely hailed as a game-changer for the international negotiations. After their White House meeting a couple of days ago, the two presidents issued a clarion call to the world to secure “an ambitious, successful Paris outcome” at the UN Climate Summit toward the end of the year.

Seventy years ago, China and the United States fought alongside each other to defeat a common enemy. Thirty-six years ago, they came together, driven by an alignment of strategic interests. At those moments, China was either on the brink of civil war or just emerging from a tumultuous decade. Today, China and the United States have a deep stake in each other’s success, just as the world has a deep stake in a strong and resilient China-US relationship, to which the Xi-Obama summits have undoubtedly contributed. We are all better off because of them.

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