Opinion / Chen Weihua

Summit to set sunny tone for times ahead

By Chen Weihua (China Daily) Updated: 2013-06-08 07:56

Summit to set sunny tone for times aheadAs President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama began their two-day summit in Sunnylands, California, on Friday, speculation was rife about its outcome, with some people even trying to hijack the agenda to serve their own interests.

The Chinese and the US governments, however, have said the meeting may not yield specific deliverables, because it focuses on building a personal relationship between Xi and Obama and setting the tone for bilateral ties. The meeting, though, is expected to lay the foundation for future deliverables.

The top leaders of the two countries have been committed to exploring a new type of major power relationship to prevent the ugly conflicts the past has seen between a rising power and an established power.

Most experts in China-US relations have welcomed the idea of holding the summit away from the official glare of Washington and without the rigid formalities and protocols. They say Sunnylands will provide the perfect backdrop for Xi and Obama to better know each other and discuss a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues.

But some people want the two leaders to solve a host of thorny issues during their two-day meeting. Their concern that some of the issues, such as the territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, could push China and the US toward an unwanted conflict is understandable.

That is why it is important for the two leaders to build the kind of trust that could prevent this worst-case scenario from becoming a reality. Nevertheless, maritime territorial disputes, many of which have roots in history, may take years, if not generations, to resolve. The same is true for disputes over trade and investment, and cyber security. They cannot be resolved at just one meeting.

However, if the two countries' top leaders set the right tone, it will be easier for their teams of officials and experts to work on the issues at forums such as the annual Strategic & Economic Dialogue, scheduled for July in Washington.

With cyber security hitting the headlines in the US media over the past few months, some Americans would like to see the Sunnylands meeting as a cyber summit. Such a wish, however, exposes their ignorance about the breadth and complexity of Sino-US ties.

Even US officials acknowledge that China has been a victim of cyber attacks, many of which Beijing says appeared to originate in the US. Washington, on the other hand, alleges some of the attacks on US sites seem to have originated in China.

Perhaps people who want China and the US to focus exclusively on cyber attacks at the Sunnylands summit should be reminded of the many prolonged tussles between the White House and Congress. When the White House and Congress have not been able to resolve their differences over even seemingly minor issues without a fair amount of debate and compromise, how can they expect the Chinese and US governments to resolve their disputes over thorny issues at one meeting?

Obviously, such people are backed or being used by interest groups or lobbyists trying to benefit from the hijacking of the summit's agenda. Some in the mainstream media, which have been increasingly catering to sensationalism, can be seen as one such group.

In his book, Obama and China's Rise, Jeffrey Bader, senior director of Asian Affairs, US National Security Council, from 2009 to 2011, has blasted the media for their coverage of Obama's visit to China in 2009. "The Western media coverage of the events damaged both the trip and the administration's ability to manage China policy," Bader has written.

While the White House regarded Obama's visit to China as a success, the media tried to portray him as being weak in front of Chinese leaders, Bader says. Former US assistant secretary for East Asia Kurt Campbell, too, has said that whenever US leaders visit Asia, the media interpret their visits as one of confrontations with China.

While Obama gave a lot of importance to media coverage during his first term, Bader said on Tuesday that the nice thing about being re-elected US president is that you can have a somewhat thick skin in the second term and ignore domestic pressure on minor issues and concentrate on more important, longer-term issues.

This is exactly what the Sunnylands summit is about: looking at an important and long-term relationship of cooperation as well as competition.

The author, based in Washington, is deputy editor of China Daily USA. E-mail:

(China Daily 06/08/2013 page5)

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