Obama Xi Jinping Meeting: Informality Gives Leaders a Chance to Reset Their Relations


President Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will meet this weekend for an unusual series of meetings that could help define one of the world’s most important relationships for years to come. The setting of the meeting, in the Sunnylands estate outside Los Angeles, is unusually informal and a far cry from the elaborately choreographed summits typically held between Chinese and American leaders.

Obama’s attempt at personal diplomacy with the new Chinese president, who gained control of the presidency, the Communist Party, and the military simultaneously in March, is primarily aimed at assessing the new leader’s views on key bilateral issues between the two superpowers. The strategic trust deficit, an increased American military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, the economic rivalry, and cyber-attacks are still the main issues, as they have been throughout Obama’s presidency. The Chinese counterpart to Obama, however, has changed. Xi Jinping is much more relaxed than his predecessor, the unsmiling Hu Jintao.

Probably the two most important topics under discussion will be the cyber-attacks and North Korea.

As I argued in an earlier piece, the recent quagmire that involved North Korea, the U.S., and South Korea put China in a difficult position. Despite its longstanding friendship with Pyongyang, Chinese interests during the fiasco were actually served much better by engaging in a little coercive maneuvering against the North and in the process appeasing Western interests. The Chinese situation has not changed much since then. The current circumstances will make it much easier for Obama and Xi to find some common ground on how to deal with North Korea.

The meeting will also give a chance for the two leaders to engage in direct dialogue regarding the increased Chinese apprehensions regarding a growing U.S. involvement in the region that has been termed the “Asia pivot.”   

With regard to the cyber-attacks, the Chinese officials have continuously undercounted the importance of the issue. The attacks according to the U.S. government have targeted U.S. businesses and government agencies. They have allegedly been aimed at stealing secret military and corporate technology and information. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has overtly accused some degree of Chinese government involvement in the attacks.

Beijing has repeatedly denied the accusations, saying that hacking is a global problem, of which China is also a victim. But the chorus of voices arguing that the Chinese stance is untenable is growing. The personalized nature of the upcoming meeting will allow greater room for the two leaders to make their concerns and policies regarding the issue clearer, and in the process re-establish some degree of trust between each other.

It would be naïve to expect any substantial policy changes in the immediate future as a result of the meeting. However, as a senior official said, “one of those cases that only over time will one be able to look back and say this meeting affected the trend lines, the vector, of Chinese behavior and interaction.”