Obama and Xi at Sunnylands: A Good Start

Based on the briefings after the Sunnylands Summit, it appears that the encounter between President Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping met its primary goal of deepening the personal relationship between the two, and in charting a way forward on the key issues of their bilateral relationship.

Of course, the briefers are going to put the meetings in the best possible light, since Washington and Beijing had invested a lot in this meeting. But the two leaders appear to have genuinely connected in a positive way during their eight hours together. Tom Donilon, President Obama’s National Security Adviser, called the conversations “positive and constructive, wide-ranging and quite successful in achieving the goals that we set forth for this meeting.” They began by describing their respective vision for their countries, both domestically and externally. The implication is that a positive U.S.-China relationship will allow each to fulfill his goals. Or, neither will be able to succeed without a cooperative U.S.-China relationship.

On specific issues, Obama and Xi appear to have had the most agreement on North Korea: on the strategic dangers posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, and on the need to fully enforce the resolutions of the UN Security Council to create pressure on the North to choose between nuclear weapons and a normal relationship with the international community. President Obama discussed the problem of cyber-theft targeting public and private American entities. He also urged restraint by all parties to disputes in the East and South China Seas. President Xi reportedly (and not unexpectedly) raised the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and Obama reportedly reiterated the long-standing U.S. position. Xi also asked for more information on regarding the multilateral trade negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Obama pledged to provide that transparency.

Thus, the Sunnylands Summit did not resolve the issues in the U.S.-China relationship, but that was never its objective. Instead, the goal was to create a more effective platform for addressing those issues in the future by deepening the Xi-Obama personal relationship and by making explicit the reality that the success of each will affect the success of the other. This was a good beginning, but it is just a beginning. Chinese observers should not, as they have in the past, infer that all the problems of the bilateral relationship have disappeared simply because the two leaders had a good meeting.

Still, the stakes here are high. Both leaders understand from history that when a country has quickly accumulated power in the past and challenged the existing international system, the result was usually conflict and war. Obama and Xi appear to understand both the need and the opportunity to create a “new model of relations between great powers,” and that their own choices and actions – and their personal interaction – will be crucial in avoiding the old model.