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Assaying the Shirtsleeves Summit


Over the weekend, presidents Obama and Xi met in California for eight hours of talks about the future of the US-China relationship. The venue, the Sunnylands estate, has been described as opulent, even palatial, but the talks themselves struck a more informal tone. The FT reports:

The breadth of the talks and their timing, at the start of their second and first terms respectively, were “unique” in Sino-US meetings since the two countries opened a dialogue in 1971, said Tom Donilon, Mr Obama’s outgoing National Security Adviser.

“China and the United States must find a new path, one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past,” Mr Xi said bluntly.

It’s much too soon to tell whether the summit accomplished anything, or marked a turning point in relations between China and the US. Historically, most such meetings accomplish little beyond a few days of good press coverage for the leaders involved. But the pattern of longer, more informal meetings, if it holds, would be a healthy change. Xi’s stated desire for a different kind of relationship between two great powers is a very useful idea.

What Xi seems to mean by this is that the US and China need to figure out a way to avoid conflict between the ambitions of a rising power and the jealousy and suspicion of a dominant one. Many political scientists believe that these relationships are almost inevitably doomed to conflict. Xi’s framing of the need for dialog in these terms, while underlining China’s immense ambitions in the 21st century, also suggests that at the highest level Chinese leaders understand the potential stakes in the US-China relationship and are prepared to put in the time that charting a more favorable course requires.

The two sides clearly remain far apart: China wants the US out of its disputes with its neighbors in the South China Sea, and the US wants China to stop its intensive program of corporate and government espionage. Neither side seemed to be giving ground.

Finally, note just how unlike this summit was from the gatherings that characterized high politics in the 20th century. It was not just that no Europeans were present, but that neither of the leaders has deep personal roots in the Atlantic community. This is a glimpse at what could well become the diplomacy of the 21st century (unless Europe figures out how to organize both its economy and its political system more effectively).

The Pacific Century is here.

[US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 14, 2012. Image courtesy of Getty Images.]

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  • lukelea

    You failed to mention this was also an opportunity for these two leaders to size each other up as men, to try to gauge the other’s strengths and weaknesses based on close personal observation. I recall JFK was sure he impressed Khrushchev as weak and that this was a factor leading to the Cuban missile crisis.

    It’s pretty obvious Xi is no weak sister. He looks more like a bull — one whose first name is not Ferdinand. How Obama impressed Xi is the real question. Who can forget the contemptuous way the Chinese treated him at the Copenhagen climate summit four years ago? There’s a lot of racial prejudice in China, against Africans especially. Add to that Obama’s small stature, and you can see I am wandering into territory the mainstream media would never dare broach.

  • Corlyss

    Are we going to get an article about the NSA employee who defected to China?

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