Home / China / View

Xi, Obama to seek new tone at summit

By Chen Weihua | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-31 14:26

 Xi, Obama to seek new tone at summit

A view of the Sunnylands main house across one of the lakes on the golf course. US presidents, royalty and Hollywood stars have stayed at the 200-acre estate. Ned Redway /The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands


Solving a myriad of issues is expected to take a backseat to building a personal rapport for a new relationship when the leaders meet for two days, Chen Weihua reports from Washington.

The 25,000-square-foot pink-roofed mansion deep in a woodsy desert estate at Rancho Mirage, California, and its large, informally furnished rooms are said to be ideal for leaders with big ideas.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping and US counterpart Barack Obama meet on June 7 and 8 at Sunnylands, the issues to discuss will range from denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, civil war in Syria, cyber attacks and the US "pivot" in Asia to climate change, the global financial crisis, bilateral trade and investment and disputes in the East and South China seas.

However, sources close to both sides expect the two leaders will focus on building personal rapport and setting a tone for a strategic relationship rather than solving specifics.

Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the United States, who traveled to Sunnylands last week to prepare for the summit, seemed to echo that, saying that the meeting "may not have a long list of what we call deliverables, but it will enable us and enable our cooperation to deliver more in the future."

"The current China-US relationship is at a critical juncture," Xi proclaimed after a meeting on May 27 with US National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, who was on a three-day visit to China to prepare for the meeting.

So far, Xi's proposal to establish a new type of major power relationship between the two countries has been received positively among top US leaders as goodwill to increase cooperation and prevent conflicts, especially ones that lead to wars between an existing power and rising power. Officials and pundits on both sides, however, are looking for more substance to the phrase.

Jeffrey Bader, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011, believes the thinking that lies behind the phrase is the realization that the history of the rise of great powers has rarely been smooth or easy, and the reaction of the dominant power to the rise of a newcomer frequently has been to see the rising power as a threat.

"Some analysts have made a living out of warning of the inevitability of a similar clash between the United States and China," Bader said in his talk on China-US relations in Shanghai on May 14. "The objective of those who have articulated the desirability of 'a new type of great power relationship' is precisely to avoid such a clash between the United States and China, so we should respect and appreciate their intent."

Analysts in China and the US believe that the two countries remain deeply suspicious of each other's long-term intentions regardless of increasing economic interdependence and repeated pledges by leaders of both nations to build a strategic partnership based on mutual interest and respect. Such distrust, some argue, is at its highest in decades and threatens further bilateral cooperation.

"Distrust itself makes it difficult for leaders on each side to be confident they understand the deep thinking among leaders on the other side regarding the future US-China relationship," Wang Jisi, a Chinese scholar from Peking University and Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, co-wrote in a paper.

For many Chinese, the US has been trying to curtail the rise of China to maintain what they see as a global hegemony, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, and they point to an array of examples:

US efforts to promote democracy is viewed in China as designed to sabotage the Communist Party's leadership, according to Wang. "The leadership therefore actively promotes efforts to guard against the influence of American ideology and US thinking about democracy, human rights and related issues," he said.

US continuous arms sales to Taiwan - when the cross-Strait relations are at its best since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 - is seen as interference in China's internal affairs.

The US pivot or "rebalancing" to the Asia-Pacific region has also been perceived largely as a response to China's fast-growing regional influence, both economically and militarily. When Obama announced in November 2011 that the US will deploy up to 2,500 Marines in the Australian port city of Darwin, Chinese interpreted it as a move to confront China.

Many Chinese believe the US is biased in China's territorial disputes with some of its neighbors, although the US wouldn't want to be forced into war with China due to its treaty obligations with Japan or the Philippines.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a high-level free-trade agreement aggressively promoted by the US, has been viewed by many as a way to exclude China and hold it down economically.

Meanwhile, many in the US believe that a rising China seeks to supplant the US and weaken its global influence.

However, Lieberthal of Brookings argued that strategic distrust of China isn't the current dominant view of national decision-makers in the US, who believe it is feasible and desirable to develop a basically constructive long-term relationship with a rising China.

"But US decision-makers also see China's future as very undetermined, and there are related worries and debates about the most effective approach to promote desired Chinese behavior," he said.

Korean peninsula

While Xi and Obama will try to foster a personal relationship and set a right tone at the Sunnylands summit, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and Iran are expected to be main topics, as they had been in almost all the 12 meetings between Obama and Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Chinese and US leaders share the view of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. China also believes that the denuclearization should be achieved peacefully and shouldn't cause instability in the region. It worries that a sudden collapse of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea would create huge chaos and influx of refugees to the DPRK-China border.

Many Chinese also believe that the US has a hidden agenda of going for regime change in the DPRK, and they worry that a collapse of the DPRK would mean the whole Korean peninsula will fall into Washington's geopolitical sphere.

Visits to Beijing last month by Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey signal Washington's renewed interest in seeking Beijing's help on the thorny issue.

Last week, DPRK envoy Vice-Marshal Choe Ryong-hae visited China, bringing a letter to Xi from its leader Kim Jong-un on strengthening bilateral relations. Choe said his country was willing to resolve issues through Six-Party Talks and other forms of dialogue.

China also has opposed Iran on developing nuclear weapons although in principle it believes Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

As China and the US see more cooperation on DPRK, they also have traded accusations on cyber attacks over the last few months.

The US Department of Defense, in its mandated annual report to the Congress on May 6, for the first time linked the Chinese government to the hacking directed at the US.

China has denied all the accusations of Chinese government involvement. Some Chinese analysts see the intensified US charges as well-orchestrated by special interest groups.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China is willing to hold constructive talks and cooperate with the international community, including the US, on the issue to maintain security, openness and peace in cyberspace. She emphasized such dialogue and cooperation should be based on equality and mutual respect.

During his visit to China in mid April, Kerry announced the creation of a China-US working group on cyber security.

A former US government official who worked at both the State Department and the White House told China Daily on condition of anonymity that the recent US accusation on China in cyber attacks is overblown and ignored what the National Security Agency has been doing for a long time.

As China's vice-president, Xi met Obama in the White House on Valentine's Day last year. He said in a policy address to business leaders the following day that "cooperation between China and the United States cannot be closed by any force. On the contrary, it will open wider and wider."

'Positive energy'

Since becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party last November, Xi has emphasized injecting "positive energy" into the China-US relationship.

For Chinese leaders, Xi's visit to the US and two-day meeting with Obama just two months after taking office is unprecedented. His predecessor, Hu Jintao, visited the US after three years into office, while Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, didn't come to the US until four years after becoming president. Most of their meetings with US leaders last only one or two hours, or just 30-minutes on the sidelines of international conferences.

Xi is already somewhat known among Americans thanks to his last trip to the US. Christopher Johnson, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describes Xi as "more relaxed and cosmopolitan."

Like many China watchers in the US, Johnson was impressed by Xi's style of cutting formalities for senior officials travelling inside and outside the country.

While Xi and Obama focus on getting to know each other better and setting a positive tone for the relationship at Sunnylands, teams of officials and experts from the two governments will be preparing for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held in Washington in July.

There, those wide-ranging issues again will be discussed in an attempt to enrich the new type of power relationship between the two countries called for by Xi.

Contact the writer at


Editor's picks
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349