Low Drama, High Stakes

Jonathan Fenby on what to expect from this weekend's Obama-Xi summit.
By: /
June 4, 2013

Cold War summits between American and Soviet leaders were occasions of high drama held against a background of mutual nuclear threats and ideological conflict. With the obvious exception of the first session between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in Beijing in 1972, meetings between U.S. and Chinese leaders have generally been lower key. The meetings between President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping at the Sunnyland Ranch in California this weekend are likely to be more a matter of the two men taking the measure of one another – this will be their first encounter since Obama's reelection and Xi's promotion to the very top of the Communist Party – than of them trying to reach major decisions.

For President Obama, the question will be whether the new Chinese leader is a man with whom he thinks he can do business on the wide range of issues outstanding between the world’s two major powers.  He will, in particular, look to the Chinese leader to take stronger steps to bring North Korea to heel. Beijing has every desire to do this but has been held back by its fear of provoking a collapse of the Kim Jong Un regime: the implosion of North Korea would create a wave of refugees across the border into China and would lead to the reunification of the peninsula under South Korea’s leadership, and the moving up of U.S. and Allied troops to that border. Recent signs of a tougher stance by Beijing towards Pyongyang could presage an undertaking of action by Xi that would be a big favour to the Americans in return for which reciprocal concessions would be expected.

For Xi, whose position as General  Secretary of the Communist Party is more important than his status as State President in China’s Leninist system, it will be a question of judging how much he and his country need to reach accords with the United States and how far they can get by forging their own course.

Despite its problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington continues to be the main world player, and while not always the "indispensable power" it is at least the one which is most willing to involve itself in global affairs on a wide scale. China shows no such disposition. For all its international economic weight, its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and its nuclear armoury, the People’s Republic plays a relative subdued global role.

The last major state ruled by a Communist party concentrates on narrow objectives: ensuring that countries do not interfere in the internal affairs of others, safeguarding its supplies of raw materials, and seeking to extend its clout in its home region of East Asia. Its attitude in all three respects is dictated by its obvious and immediate interests.

It does not want other countries to question its rule over Tibet and the huge territory of Xinjiang bordering on Central Asia. It needs hard commodities to fuel its economic machine and, increasingly, soft commodities to feed its population as incomes and consumer demand rise. Finally, as a rising power, it resents the U.S. strategic umbrella that has hung over East Asia since 1945 and is now perturbed by the more assertive stance adopted by Japan in disputes between the two countries and in their rivalry for regional influence.

That third element will figure in the Xi-Obama talks. The U.S. President has declared that he is pursuing a ‘Pacific Pivot’ to shift priorities from Europe to Asia. Washington is keen to see a Pacific free trade zone whose terms seem to exclude China.  Beijing can only see this as a form of encirclement, especially given the powerful U.S. naval detachment based in Japan, the ‘island chain’  running from Okinawa through Taiwan to the Philippines, and American military agreements with its neighbours. If Xi delivers something on North Korea, he would want a softening of the U.S. position regionally, though how Obama could square this with American allies, notably Japan, presents a fresh quandary.

China’s squabbles over maritime sovereignty with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and now Malaysia provide a volatile element in the major growth region for the world economy. One positive outcome from the weekend summit would be if the two leaders can lower the tension level and choke off the rise in nationalism evident in East Asia, but this may be difficult given the firm stance taken by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of elections to the upper house of parliament in July, and Xi’s own cultivation of the Chinese armed forces since he became Communist Party leader last November and then State President in March. (He also heads the country’s military commission.)

The two leaders have plenty of other  important topics to discuss – from the environment to economic relations and cyber-spying, the latter of which has become a major American concern. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon is calling for the Chinese to recognize it as an urgent problem requiring committed investigation leading to further cooperation on a protection framework. On the economy, Vice Premier Wang Yang told Donilon last month that the two nations should "strengthen macroeconomic policy coordination, and jointly promote world economic recovery and growth". How this can be achieved is something that would be helped by broad understanding between the two leaders, though specifics may well still be missing after summit. In general, the most positive outcome of the meeting would be for them to work out ways of fostering greater willingness to work together across global issues and deeper trust, thereby laying the groundwork for a new type of great power relationship.

China obviously wants that relationship to embody respect for its rise from the depths of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution to its present status as the world’s second economy (and the one likely to overtake the U.S. later this decade).  That economic weight has brought China into the world as never before in its history but it has not translated into a geopolitical position to go with the boom in growth over the last three decades. To achieve that would mean Beijing committing itself much more internationally, for instance by joining with Washington in promoting efforts to find solutions to major global problems.

There are likely to be some advances, such as a decision by the People’s Republic to introduce a cap on carbon emission which could help to re-launch a serious drive to deal with global warming. But Xi will be held back by that most basic of concerns of politicians everywhere – the domestic situation.

After making huge material progress since Deng Xiaoping launched economic reform in 1978, China now faces huge domestic problems. The economic model crafted during the 1980s is running out of steam. Major structural reforms  are required to keep the motor of growth moving forward at a sustainable pace and to eliminate weaknesses in the system, many of which are the result of the expansion of the last three decades. The rapid evolution of society is throwing up fresh challenges. There is the basic political issue of one-party rule and the need for the Communist movement to rejuvenate itself.

These are the things that matter most to Xi. His meeting with Obama confirms him as a major world figure and he appears anxious to play a stronger world role than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. But his preoccupations as he establishes himself in power are domestic, and his approach to Obama will be dictated by these concerns. Whatever is agreed to in California will be determined by the situation in China.