U.S.-China Summit Reveals Beijing’s Drive
Xi’s Push for a Meeting Underscores His Growing Authority, Ambition to Recast Bilateral Ties; Obama’s Delicate Balance
(WALL STREET JOURNAL 03 JUN 13) … Jeremy Page and Colleen McCain Nelson
The California summit this week between presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping reflects the surprising speed with which China’s new leader has asserted his authority at home and laid out his vision to establish his country as a “great power” on a par with the U.S.
The two-day “shirtsleeves summit” was hastily arranged and unusual for China in that it is largely unscripted—highlighting the extent to which Mr. Xi, the son of a revolutionary hero, has established himself as an authoritative and confident leader willing to negotiate directly with Mr. Obama.
U.S. officials hope the retreat at the Sunnylands estate starting Friday will allow the two leaders to develop a personal rapport and to discuss at length—without the protocol of a state visit—the most contentious issues between them, particularly North Korea, cybersecurity and maritime disputes in Asia.
For China, however, the priority is to present an image of a strong leader negotiating on an equal footing with Mr. Obama in their first meeting since Mr. Xi took power in November and outlined a “Chinese dream” to rejuvenate the nation as an economic and military power.
Party insiders say Mr. Xi is deliberately setting himself apart from his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who never attempted such an informal meeting, appeared stiff and awkward in public and is viewed by many in China as a weak leader who failed to implement badly needed reforms during his decade in power.
Mr. Xi’s initiative puts Mr. Obama in a difficult position, as he seeks to establish a better working relationship with his Chinese counterpart, who will be in office for a decade, while reassuring Asian allies concerned about China’s growing economic and military muscle.
People familiar with the preparations said that Chinese officials had been pushing for a meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama since around December to reinforce the new Chinese leader’s signature foreign policy initiative, which is to forge a “new-type great power relationship” with the U.S.
Chinese officials and experts say the concept is designed to avert the military conflict that has often arisen throughout history when a rising power challenges an established one.
U.S. officials were initially lukewarm on the idea of a meeting partly because Mr. Xi was already scheduled to meet Mr. Obama twice in the autumn, at the G-20 and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summits, and partly because the Chinese weren’t offering much in return.
The Obama administration was also waiting for the Chinese leadership to develop its domestic agenda, and provide details of what it meant by the “new-type great power relationship”—which some U.S. and Asian officials thought implied that the U.S. should not interfere in China’s strategic backyard.
But after visits to China by Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior administration officials, it became clear that Mr. Xi had moved more rapidly than anticipated to establish his authority and define policy priorities, said U.S. officials. In recent weeks, pressure on the Obama administration also mounted from China specialists and business leaders in the U.S. many of whom felt September was too late for a meeting with Mr. Xi, said people familiar with preparations for the meeting.
Another factor, those people said, was that Mr. Xi chose to visit Russia and Africa on his first overseas visit as president in March, while Li Keqiang, the new Chinese Premier, went to India, Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany in May on his first foreign trip in that post.
“China’s basically been saying: we’re changing our modus operandi; we’re going to behave like a great power; we have options,” said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Mr. Obama finally proposed an informal meeting tagged on to the end of Mr. Xi’s official visits to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico between May 31 and June 6, according to a senior U.S. official.
The idea was to move beyond the rigid agenda of bilateral meetings and state visits, which typically involve little more than opening statements and presentations of talking points, the official said.
“This is not a typical diplomatic summit in the sense of dark suits and neckties and dozens of officials at the table reading from prepared scripts,” the U.S. official said. The official emphasized that it was not an emergency summit. Rather, with so many important issues on the agenda, “the sooner we got started, the better.”
Mr. Obama is expected to press Mr. Xi to use China’s economic leverage to persuade North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program and refrain from further threats to attack South Korea and the U.S.
Another U.S. priority is to curb cyberattacks on the U.S. that the Pentagon said last month were conducted by entities linked to the Chinese government and military. The U.S. official said the American message will be that stealing proprietary information is damaging to China’s own interests and to bilateral ties. The president will underscore his determination to protect U.S. companies and innovators, the official said.
Mr. Obama also likely to express concern over what it perceives as a more confrontational approach by China to territorial issues in Asia, especially a dispute over uninhabited islands with Japan, the main U.S. ally in the region.
Both sides are playing down expectations of “deliverable” results.
“The biggest outcome on the upside is that each side walks out saying: I get that guy, I see where he’s coming from, and I can do business with him,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution who was senior director for Asia on the National Security Council under President Clinton. “The downside is if each side feels: I get that guy, I see where he’s coming from, and I don’t trust him. So there’s some risk here.”
Chinese analysts said Beijing accepted the format because they viewed an informal meeting as more prestigious than a state visit since only one other Chinese leader had been received in the U.S. in such a way: Jiang Zemin, who was hosted by President George W. Bush at the family ranch in Texas, in 2002.
That took place shortly before Mr. Jiang retired, so for Mr. Xi to have a similar meeting so soon after taking power is a strong indication of his standing within the Party and his greater confidence in dealing with foreign leaders, according to Chinese political analysts.
“The China-U.S. relationship has been heading in the wrong direction for several years,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.
“If Xi Jinping can meet in this way with the president of a superpower so early and achieve some results, this will be quite beneficial for him domestically, and show he’s really the master of Chinese foreign policy.”
Mr. Xi already demonstrated his self-assured leadership style during his visit last year, when he attended a reunion with a family in Muscatine, Iowa, with whom he stayed for a while on a trip there in 1985.
But the Sunnylands meeting will be far more challenging, as he will have to be prepared to negotiate unscripted with Mr. Obama over several hours, according to people familiar with the preparations.
In a typical bilateral meeting, Chinese leaders rarely deviate from a script that has been approved by other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the top decision-making body.
To avoid being accused of weakness by his peers, Mr. Xi is therefore highly unlikely to give any ground on issues relating to China’s national security, according to Chinese and Western analysts.
He is likely to express China’s concerns about the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia which Beijing which sees this as part of a containment strategy. He is also expected to repeat China’s call for an unconditional resumption of “six party talks” between North and South Korea, China, Japan, the U.S. and Russia to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear program. And he will likely reiterate China’s long-standing position that it, too, is a victim of cyberattacks.
“Xi Jinping wants to break out of a cycle under the last leadership where the U.S. would always complain about things, and the Chinese side would make concessions,” said one Chinese academic who advises the leadership on U.S.-China relations. “He wants to be treated as an equal.”
Adam Entous in Singapore and Keith Johnson in Washington contributed to this article.Back to Top