And officially: Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, the world’s ultimate power couple

By J Brooks Spector 10 June 2013

On Friday and Saturday, American President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president who took office in March, spent hours in intensive discussions on pretty much everything that divides them in relaxed, informal meetings at the Sunnylands estate, near Rancho Mirage, California. By the end of these meetings, US officials could call these talks “unique, positive and constructive” and even “terrific”, while the Chinese said they had “blazed a new trail”. While this US-China conversation was not quite the “warm and friendly” give-and-take that would have been the kind of diplomat-speak used for one of those love-fests that used to happen between Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, nevertheless this moment may well represent a profound sea change for meetings between American and Chinese leaders. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

This kind of initial judgment is rather better than “the talks were frank and useful” – a circumlocution that would imply the two men had been at the point of pushing back their chairs, standing up, red-faced and shouting at each another – about what had happened at Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy’s meeting in Vienna in 1961.

Rather than another one of those deeply formal, boardroom style meetings that have more usually characterised US – China leaders meetings, this one seems to have “imminent breakthrough” written on it, at least if the initial ebullient reactions are to be believed.

The two men met amidst the rolling grounds of the Sunnylands estate in California that had been created by Walter Annenberg, the millionaire publisher and political appointee ambassador. In prior years, Sunnylands has been a favourite retreat for Republican presidents, but it had much less frequently been the site for Democrats to use for meetings.

While the two presidents did not reach an agreement on a key topic – cybersecurity – they did reach broad understanding that Kim Jong-un’s idiosyncratic regime in North Korea needs to become a denuclearised one. On cybersecurity, meanwhile, Obama made use of these meetings to present Xi with detailed evidence of intellectual property thefts that have emanated out of China. After the Obama-Xi conversations, Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor said cybersecurity was at the “center of the relationship” between the globe’s number one and two economies.  And according to Donilon, Obama had told Xi, “if it’s not addressed, if it continues to be this direct theft of United States property, that this was going to be very difficult problem in the economic relationship and was going to be an inhibitor to the relationship really reaching its full potential.” For their part, Chinese officials said Xi had made a point of opposing all forms of cyberspying, although he declined to accept responsibility for any attacks against the US. Yang Jiechi, Xi’s senior foreign policy advisor, offered, “Cybersecurity should not become the root cause of mutual suspicion and frictions between our two countries. Rather, it should be a new bright spot in our cooperation.” Yang added that Xi and Obama had “blazed a new trail” away from the their countries’ past differences and that the two men had “talked about cooperation and did not shy away from differences.”

As for those differences as well as the congruence of thought, the New York Times reported that “on their second day of talks, their disagreements — over cyberattacks as well as arms sales to Taiwan, maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and manipulation of the Chinese currency — spilled into the open when senior officials from both countries emerged to describe the meetings in detail.”

Nonetheless, the two seem to have found real agreement on North Korea, building on China’s new assertiveness towards Pyongyang that seems to have helped build a better climate between the two superpowers. On North Korea (DPRK), Donilon told the media that the two men had both agreed the DPRK needs to be denuclearised and that neither nation is willing to accept the DPRK as a nuclear-armed state. (Some analysts now project that Pyongyang has up to as many as eight plutonium bombs.)

China remains that nation’s strongest – and, indeed, virtually its only – ally, but in recent months, China has sent strong signals about some growing impatience with its ally’s unpredictability and its provocations that continue to make use of the language of nuclear war, those infernos of fire and the rest of the DPRK’s cataclysmic litany. Donilon added, “China has taken a number of steps in recent months to send a clear message to North Korea, including though enhanced enforcement of sanctions and through public statements by the senior leadership in China”.

On this front, the Times added, “After suspending nearly all contact with South Korea, the North has in recent weeks reversed course, and on Sunday officials of the two countries are to meet at a border village to arrange the first cabinet minister-level meeting in six years. Mr. Obama’s administration has welcomed China’s new assertiveness with its neighbor and ally, believing that it reflects a new calculation that a constant state of crisis on the Korean Peninsula is destabilising for the Chinese as well.”

While the two leaders met for eight hours of talks, they also had time for one of those enticing working dinners that offered up lobster tamales, Porterhouse steak and cherry pie, all prepared by celebrity chef Bobby Flay. On Saturday morning the two ambled through the gardens of the Sunnylands estate. While on their walk about the park, they stopped to sit on a custom-designed bench made from California redwood that Obama then presented to Xi for him to take back to Beijing as special souvenir of their meeting.

In putting this meeting into its larger context, Donilon said, “[I]f you go back through studying each of the encounters between an American President and the leadership of China since President Nixon’s historic meeting in February of 1972 in China…. the uniqueness… of this encounter really come[s] to the fore…. [T]he style was informal… which is not the normal setting… I guess the closest… would have been the Crawford meeting in 2002 between President Bush and Jiang Zemin. But that meeting was at the end of… Jiang Zemin’s tenure, and the total meeting time was … an hour and a half or two hours…. [T]he timing was quite important here. It is at the outset of President Obama’s second term… It is at the outset of President Xi’s tenure as President of China, an expected 10-year period.”

After the two men had shucked their coats and ties for the Saturday morning gambol – it was pretty hot out there near the Mojave Desert with the temperature coming in at around 38 Celsius, after all – they wrapped things up with tea with Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan – wildly popular – at least in China – as a singer of patriotic folk tunes. In the lead-up to the two-day meeting, various people had been stoking the flames of a mini-controversy because Michelle Obama was not going to join her husband in California to meet Peng. Michelle Obama’s office had said she was doing family duty in Washington with the couple’s two children with end of school year events. In the end, the positive atmosphere of the two leaders’ meetings seems to have made this would-be spouses’ controversy fade away quietly.

Although the two leaders clearly could not achieve lift-off on cybersecurity issues between the two nations, besides North Korea, they apparently also achieved some traction on climate change concerns – announcing a partnership to reduce hydrofluorcarbon emissions. These greenhouse gases are frequently used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and industrial applications and are seen as a key culprit in global warming by most scientists.

Looking forward, among US officials and China watchers more generally, there are hopes Xi will represent a new style of Chinese leadership – a sort of East Asian leader American presidents say they can do business with, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s famous description of Mikhail Gorbachev. Xi does in fact have stronger ties to the US than any predecessor since the Communist Party came to power in China, given his own visits to Iowa to look at agriculture and the fact his daughter has studied at an American university. This would be in real contrast to the relationship Obama had achieved with Xi’s predecessor – Hu Jintao. By contrast, both Xi and Obama are in their 50s and share a love of sports. Xi likes soccer and swimming and Obama favours golf and basketball. Perhaps most interesting of all, both men have high-visibility spouses who have been key factors in the establishment of their respective public images as leaders.

Although no detailed transcripts of the leaders’ meetings were released, briefers explained Xi spent a significant amount of time describing his life as a student when the family had been forcibly rusticated during China’s Cultural Revolution – and how that experience had informed his views about his country’s future. Apparently to help loosen things up a bit during the long meetings, Xi brought out a bottle of Chinese liquor to toast Obama during their working dinner. (Hmm… Maotai with lobster tamales, sounds just about right.) According to current plans, the two men will meet again in Russia in September on the fringes of an international meeting and Xi has also invited Obama to China for further informal discussions.

For his part, this meeting is the start of a foreign policy-heavy period of time for Barack Obama including trips to Europe and Africa – and the continuing reverberations of several “domestic” controversies that have significant foreign policy angles such as the on-going Benghazi hearings, the AP phone records subpoena – and, now, most recently, revelations the US government has been undertaking massive sweeps of the metadata from Verizon telephone records as well as the even larger data collection of electronic messaging information from numerous service provider companies, as part of the PRISM project. The latter has focused on foreign data, but administration officials have admitted “incidental” data on US citizens has been caught up in the collecting and analysing of the data.

As a result, in the hours leading up to the summit with China’s president, Obama had been aggressively speaking about distinctions between what the National Security Agency has been doing with the vast trove of digital information it has been gathering and charges over China’s alleged cybersnooping of defence-related data.

During the Q-and-A session with reporters following the meeting, the two leaders did a careful egg dance around any respective accusations of high-tech spying, although both acknowledged an urgent need to find a common way forward to address the question. As Obama said, such rapid cyber advances really meant the two countries had entered “uncharted waters.” He added “We don’t have the kind of protocols that have governed military issues and arms issues, where nations have a lot of experience in trying to negotiate what’s acceptable and what’s not”. For his part, Xi said these rapid technological advancements were a “double-edged sword,” although he disclaimed any responsibility for any alleged cyber-espionage by his nation, adding China was also a victim of such things. So there. This meeting wasn’t a total love fest, obviously.

But, despite the differences between the two nations and their leaders, and in spite of the fact the full slate of US-China differences on the issues were not put to bed in those two days of talks, tamales and trail walks (well, okay, manicured garden strolls); still, it is hard not to see this meeting as an event of real significance; a turning point; a sea change. This really marks the first time, after all, that an American and a Chinese leader have met in circumstances approaching equality, devoid of that formal but ritual pomp and ceremony – as two men of the 21st century, both fixed on the evolving bilateral relationship of two Pacific nations.

The Economist noted, “American officials are encouraged, however, by Mr Xi’s willingness to engage in such freewheeling diplomacy. His predecessor, Hu Jintao, shunned it, preferring to stick to formal agendas. Before Mr Hu, Jiang Zemin pressed for, and eventually secured, an informal summit with George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. But that meeting in 2002 was much briefer, and Mr Jiang was just days away from stepping down. For the newly installed Mr Xi, the decision to engage in unscripted discussions spread over two days shows unusual confidence in his political grip and his mastery of a vital and highly complex area of foreign policy. But it has not been easy for Western officials to make out how Mr Xi plans to wield his power; hence the importance (as the Americans see it) of the summit in California.… [I]n the months leading up to his assumption of power Mr Xi was already in charge of a new push in the East and South China Seas to assert longstanding Chinese claims to islands controlled by Japan and the Philippines, both American allies. These efforts, involving patrols by civilian law-enforcement vessels, persist despite widespread alarm in the region. On June 1st America’s defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, told a regional security conference in Singapore that America was ‘firmly against any coercive attempts to alter the status quo’ in the two seas. China does not appear to be listening.” Or maybe it is now.

Moreover, not to put too fine a point on it, while Barack Obama’s administration has been putting its highly public, geo-political “pivot” into place – moving away from America’s earlier, nearly obsessive focus on its two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East more generally and now towards East Asia and the Pacific in Obama’s time in office – the Chinese have also been conducting something of a pivot of its own. Or as the Economist has put it, “Like a veteran salsa dancer, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, has responded to the United States’s ‘pivot’ to Asia with his own twirl south of the Rio Grande. A month after a re-elected Barack Obama paid calls on Costa Rica and Mexico, Mr Xi followed in his footsteps, visiting San José and Mexico City from June 2nd to 6th.”

There has been a great deal of attention on China’s growing involvement in Africa – Xi Jinping was in California to meet Obama following a three-nation tour to Latin America that comprised stops in Mexico, Trinidad Tobago and Costa Rica – but not Cuba or Venezuela, two of China’s erstwhile allies. The three nations Xi visited have close ties with the US and represent growing opportunities for Chinese investment and manufacturing expansion because of their easy, convenient entry into US markets. As Chinese labour costs continue to grow, plant expansion in Latin America near the vast North American market continues to make increasing sense on cost grounds as well.

Describing the stop in Trinidad Tobago, the Economist wrote that Xi’s “280-strong Chinese entourage was greeted with the sound of ‘Ah Feel to Party’, a calypso classic, and China further enhanced the mood by promising $3 billion in (unspecified) soft loans to the eight Caribbean heads of government who trailed through to meet Mr Xi. Mr Biden, by contrast, [on a recent, earlier trip to the region] got an earful of complaints that America no longer cared about the region. Ahead of his planned meeting with Mr Obama in Southern California, Mr Xi’s choice of destinations looked to some like an intriguing ‘shot across the bow’ to America, possibly in response to Mr Obama’s courting of countries in China’s orbit, such as Myanmar.”

Heretofore, it has been relatively easy (if too facile) to assume a simple model of global struggle between a rising and a declining power on the model of a Great Britain trying desperately to stave off the increasing appetites of a rising Wilhelmine Germany at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps it now may be more useful to look at how China and the US are increasingly interwoven economically and thus to contemplate the fact the two may now be searching for common ground on some key international strategic issues – finally – such as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. DM

Read more:

  • Michelle Obama snubs stylish Chinese first lady by staying home in D.C. with Sasha and Malia at the New York Daily News
  • Obama pressed Chinese leader on cybersecurity at the AP
  • U.S. and China Move Closer on Climate, but Not on Cyberespionage at the New York Times
  • Xi Jinping in America’s backyard From pivot to twirl The Chinese leader tries a smooth move in America’s backyard at the Economist
  • Relations with America Here we go again President Xi Jinping shows interest in reviving ties with America. How far is he prepared to go? At the Economist
  • Obama warns Xi that continued cybertheft would damage relations, U.S. officials said at the Washington Post
  • Obama, Xi endorse ‘new model’ of U.S.-China cooperation at
  • China, US must find a new path, says Xi Jinping at
  • NSA revelations force question: What do we want? At the AP
  • Intelligence chief defends Internet spying program at the AP

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California June 7, 2013. Obama said on Friday he welcomed the “peaceful rise” of China and that, despite inevitable areas of tension, both countries want a cooperative relationship, as he and Xi kicked off two days of meetings. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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