US-China summit gamble: Can relaxed format boost rapport over rivalry?

The two-day US-China summit, devoted to establishing a rapport between Obama and Xi, has its skeptics. But planners hope six hours of unscripted conversation can help foster a 'new type of great power relationship.'

Jae C. Hong/AP
Supporters of Chinese President Xi Jinping use fans to protect from the sun while waiting for the arrival of President Xi in Indian Wells, Calif., Thursday. President Obama and Xi, seeking a fresh start to a complex relationship, are retreating to a sprawling desert estate for two days of talks on high-stakes issues, including cybersecurity and North Korea's nuclear threats.

Skeptics of the importance of personal rapport between world leaders are dubious that the southern California summit this weekend between President Obama and China’s new president, Xi Jinping, will amount to much.

Even though the two leaders are expected to discuss everything from military and corporate cybersecurity to North Korea, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and US-China trade, the summit’s emphasis on building their personal relationship leaves doubters unimpressed.

“If we actually saw a substantial agreement on countering cyberthreats … or saw the Chinese throttle back on territorial claims, that would be significant,” says Dean Cheng, a research fellow in Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

But Mr. Cheng, who insists that “tone” and whether or not two leaders get along matter little in defending national interests, says he anticipates little of substance from the summit at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

“If, as we expect, it’s a photo opportunity, and an opportunity to share salsa and chips, it [will have been] an opportunity to exchange pleasantries, and that’s about it,” he says.

But the Friday and Saturday summit, which is set to include at least six hours of conversation between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi, is built on the premise that the dynamics between leaders do matter – especially in such a critical and rapidly evolving relationship as that between the United States and a rising China.

Although Obama met Xi when the Chinese leader was vice president, it will be the first summit – albeit an informal one – between the two presidents. Xi formally rose to China’s presidency in March.

US officials say the informal and “untested” format of the summit was chosen to allow the two leaders to get to know each other, cover a broad agenda with as much candor as possible, and build a personal relationship that would lay the groundwork for US-China relations in the years ahead.

The guiding reasoning behind a summit free of the trappings and precooked communiqués of a traditional meeting is “to get to know and to start work with the guy who the president will be dealing with over the next four years,” says one senior administration official, who requested anonymity to speak more openly about the summit.

Unlike the Heritage Foundation’s Cheng, some China experts see the upside of trying out a new summit format with the Chinese – and especially with a leader who has already shown signs of being less rigid and more open to a free-wheeling discussion than were his predecessors.

“The informal setting offers a relaxed atmosphere where, absent the heavy protocol baggage associated with formal summitry, the two men can focus on developing personal rapport and can exchange views on the many strategic challenges facing the bilateral relationship,” says Christopher Johnson, a senior adviser and the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Even Chinese officials are cautioning that no one should expect “deliverables” – specific agreements or formal steps forward – on the issues the two leaders will discuss.

But the Chinese were open to the less structured format with unusually copious time for unscripted dialogue – perhaps in part, some regional analysts say, because Xi is anxious to demonstrate that a maturing China is ready for the “new type of great power relationship” that Xi is calling for the US and China to adopt.

US officials interpret Xi’s desire to refashion US-China relations as recognition of the potential pitfalls the two countries face – and presumably both seek to avoid – as China asserts itself on the world economic and security stages, and as the US reasserts its role in the Asia-Pacific region.

“I think both leaders have recognized that there is a danger that a rising power and an established power could come into conflict at some point, and that to avoid … this trap of rivalry … it’s important to put in place … patterns of interaction between the two, bilateral mechanisms that allow them to deal with the greatest sources of instability and competition that could take this relationship down the pathway toward rivalry,” the senior administration official says.

Such a big-power rivalry, the official adds, is something “both sides … want to avoid.”       

Obama has said he intends to place a certain amount of emphasis on the cybersecurity issue – especially after the recent Pentagon-commissioned report that warned that Chinese hackers have accessed the designs for dozens of key US weapons systems.

On the other hand, US officials are also underscoring China’s recent agreement to form a standing cybersecurity working group to be part of the two countries’ strategic and economic dialogue – a bilateral forum next set to meet in July.

The two leaders will also discuss North Korea, with US officials describing Obama as particularly interested in probing recent signs of a growing Chinese willingness to challenge Pyongyang over its security provocations and funding schemes related to its nuclear program.

The US has recently had encouraging discussions with the Chinese on reining in North Korea, US officials say. They point out that those “good discussions” have taken place even as the two countries have aired their disagreements on cybersecurity issues.

That ability to pursue encouraging and problematic discussions at the same time is evidence that the US-China relationship is evolving into something more open and developed, these officials say. It’s also the kind of evidence, they add, that suggests that the two powers may be ready for the “open and serious discussions” Obama and Xi will at least have ample time for in Rancho Mirage.

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