By Hope Schaitkin
Relations between China and the U.S. have long been a subject of media attention. As Zheng Zeguang, assistant Chinese foreign minister observed, “China is the biggest developing country while the United States is the biggest developed country.” But recent issues regarding North Korean aggression, cybersecurity and slow economic growth has made the relationship between China and the U.S. invariably more essential. It is in this context that we turn our attention to Rancho Mirage, California, for this week’s informal U.S.-China summit, where the two nations will set a precedent for future relations and negotiations.
For the first time since President Xi Jinping took office, he and President Barack Obama will meet face to face. In a period, which Xi has called a “critical juncture” in the U.S.-China relationship, this meeting marks a change in Chinese diplomacy. Although he has only been in office for a few months, Xi’s foreign policy has been called “more strategic, confident and successful…than his immediate predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.” Xi, having already made diplomatic visits to Russia, Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of the Congo, promises to make the most of this opportunity to embrace a more inclusive and extroverted style of diplomacy. As the Chinese economy is continuously a forerunning issue, Xi is expected to voice concerns regarding U.S. trade barriers, as well as security concerns over the U.S.’ “strategic rebalancing” in the Asia-Pacific region, and East Asian maritime disputes. But it was Xi’s reference to his hope for a “new great power relationship” between China and the U.S. that has garnered the most public attention. Despite rising speculation over the term’s definition, most agree Xi is looking for an acknowledgement of China’s military and economic competence and distinction, in a partnership that creates a sense of “equality and mutual trust” with the U.S.
Xi’s desire for partnership has been evident in many events leading up to his informal meeting with Obama. This past week, Tom Donilon, former national security advisor to Obama, was invited to meet with Xi, Vice Premier Wang Yang, State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a cooperative and productive meeting between the nations’ leaders. Furthermore, Xi met with Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for the third time since the beginning of their friendship. During the meeting, the two leaders focused on strengthening economic ties between Los Angeles and Beijing, but the underlying purpose of the meeting was clear—Xi expects a certain level of cooperation in next week’s meeting with Obama. This expectation was suggested in one of Xi’s remarks to Villaraigosa, that “At present, China-U.S. relations are at a crucial stage of opening up to the future.”
Even the style of the summit itself takes a step away from the status quo. Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, waited years after taking office to visit the United States; Xi’s visit, however, comes just two months after his inauguration. Furthermore, while Xi’s predecessors have preferred formal state visits with high visibility, Xi has agreed to meet Obama at an informal summit, a sign of his “more personalized, flexible and self-confident” style of diplomacy. Xi’s new approach indicates his real commitment to developing the U.S.-China relationship, and possibly taking that relationship to a new level.
The most pronounced of Xi’s expressions of partnership has been in his recent conversations with Kim Jong-un’s personal envoy, Choe Ryong-hae. In a meeting with Choe, Xi said, “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and lasting peace on the peninsula is what the people want and also the trend of the times.” He remarked that returning to dialogues about denuclearization was an important priority for China, and added “the Chinese position is very clear: no matter how the situation changes, relevant parties should all adhere to the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula, persist in safeguarding its peace and stability, and stick to solving problems through dialogue and consultation.” In response, Choe indicated that North Korea was appreciative of, and sensitive to, China’s position, and that he was willing to begin dialogue with the appropriate parties. Although it is unclear whether these discussions will take place, and whether or not they will be effective, Xi takes a different stance from the previous administration, which prioritized the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula over any efforts to encourage denuclearization. This change in tone may bring China and the U.S. closer together in the coming weeks.
But growing fear about cybersecurity threats might undermine the level of cooperation achieved at next week’s meeting. Obama is under pressure to discuss recent affronts to cybersecurity, in light of accusations by the Pentagon and many private U.S. companies that Chinese hackers have targeted American firms and government agencies. In Ellen Nakashima’s Washington Post article, allegations are made that “Chinese hackers had gained access to the designs for the United States’ most sensitive advanced weapons systems.” Pentagon spokesperson, George Little, was quick to negate these claims, saying “We maintain full confidence in our weapons platforms…Suggestions that cyber intrusions have somehow led to the erosion of our capabilities or technological edge are incorrect.” With a full force media storm surrounding the issue of China and cybersecurity, it seems likely that the issue will rank high on Obama’s agenda, accompanied by discussions about the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the security of North Korea, climate change, Iran’s nuclear program, conflict in Syria and increasingly bilateral military ties.
So what can we expect from this upcoming meeting? Cybersecurity media frenzy aside, it would be unrealistic to expect a dramatic breakthrough in U.S.-China relations. Because of Xi’s efforts to encourage cooperation, however, a fracture between the two most powerful nations and economies of our time seems unlikely. Rather, we can only hope that the leaders develop a sense of mutual trust that allows them to set precedent for future cooperation on a variety of issues. As Xi remarked to Villaraigosa when encouraging economic cooperation between Beijing and Los Angeles, “In China, we have a saying: for a 9-story building, construction starts with a strong foundation on the ground level.” Hopefully, this meeting builds that foundation.
Hope Schaitkin is a communications intern at EastWest Institute’s New York Center.