Written by Don Keyser

Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping met June 7-8 for about eight hours of free-ranging, “unscripted” discussions at the Sunnylands retreat in Rancho Mirage, California. Both sides played down expectations that the “shirt-sleeves summit” would yield significant policy “deliverables.” The sole announcement of a concrete outcome is on climate change: an agreement to work together to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). But the pre-meeting official backgrounders and the veritable torrent of strikingly grandiose public punditry made this the most intensely anticipated U.S.-China get-together since Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. in January-February 1979.

Beijing and Washington accented broadly similar themes in advance of Xi’s arrival in California: the two presidents aimed to establish a comfortable working relationship, understand more deeply the other side’s perspective and “core interests,” “build strategic trust,” and, in a word, forge a “new type of great power relationship” that would manage and mitigate the inevitable clash of interests and ambitions when “an established power encounters a rising power.” Harvard scholar Graham Allison captured the mood in his New York Times op-ed reference to the “Thucydides Trap” – the “misapprehensions” between “emerging Athens” and “reigning Sparta” that led to self-fulfilling prophecies, military conflict and subjugation of one by the other.[1]

In a sense, the U.S. side has long yearned for another Chinese leader like Deng Xiaoping, who commanded unquestioned domestic authority, articulated a clear policy vision, spoke without artifice — even pungently, and made on-the-spot decisions that subsequently held. For its part, Beijing has also sought to hark back to the Deng period: to win Washington’s tangible, respectful acknowledgement of its earned status as equal partner on the world stage. Washington has sought to cast Xi Jinping as showing early signs of decisive leadership in Deng’s mold: a leader who consolidated power much earlier than anticipated, and a self-confident personality with a natural style in welcome contrast to his immediate predecessors, the allegedly “robotic,” “scripted” and “never spontaneous” Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.[2] Beijing assessed then Vice President Xi’s February 2012 visit to the U.S. as a roaring success in similar terms: impressing President Obama and other U.S. senior officials as a serious leader able to articulate China’s positions and defend its interests, and impressing American society at large as exuding both natural gravitas and a warm personal touch. One U.S. National Security Council senior official recently recalled admiringly, on background, that Xi had been “quick on his feet.”[3]

The human genetic code probably ordains that powerful leaders will seek “personal relationships” with counterparts. Such a tendency is particularly pronounced in the American political tradition. President Roosevelt referred jocularly to his wartime Soviet fellow leader as “Uncle Joe” Stalin. Henry Kissinger in his memoirs lavished praise on Premier Zhou Enlai as “urbane, infinitely patient, extraordinarily intelligent, [and] subtle” and later remembered him as “the most compelling figure” he had encountered in sixty years of public life. President George W. Bush in June 2001 famously “looked into [Vladimir Putin’s] eyes” and saw the “soul” of a straightforward, trustworthy and patriotic man with whom he could build “a very constructive relationship.” President Obama told Time Magazine interviewer Fareed Zakaria in January 2010 that the five world leaders with whom he was closest had “a lot of (mutual) trust and confidence” such that “we’ve been able to forge these close working relationships and gotten a whole bunch of stuff done.”

It is very much an open question whether the Sunnylands rapport-building exercise can lay a foundation for a “personal relationship” between leaders sufficiently robust and trusting to ameliorate, much less surmount, Sino-U.S. differences rooted in abiding national interests. Sun Zhe, director of Tsinghua University’s Center for U.S.-China Relations, cautioned “expectations cannot be too high; otherwise they’ll be followed by frustration.”[4] Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Center for American Studies, allowed “The China-U.S. relationship has been heading in the wrong direction for several years.”[5] Following the first day’s meetings, President Obama expressed to the press his encouragement that “both President Xi and myself recognize we have a unique opportunity to take the U.S.-China relationship to a new level.  And I am absolutely committed to making sure that we don’t miss that opportunity.” President Xi told the same gathering that “the two sides must work together to build a new model of major country relationship based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation … When China and the United States work together, we can be an anchor for world stability and the propeller of world peace.”[6]

Such noble aspirations notwithstanding, the impression remains that the two sides are still singing from different hymnals. Beijing seeks enhanced U.S. “understanding” of its “core interests” and greater reticence about challenging them; Washington looks for arrangements that validate and preserve the existing pattern and substance of U.S. security alliances and interests in the East Asian and Pacific region. The “rising” power seeks new deference approaching true equality, while the “established power” aims to delay or forestall the other’s rise to the status of co-equal.  The proverbial rubber meets the road on a wide range of challenging issues: North Korea’s nuclear ambitions; Taiwan’s continued de facto independence; China-Japan contention over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands; China’s asserted sovereignty over South China Sea islands and waters contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan; U.S. military reconnaissance and intelligence activities staged from waters and air space adjacent to China; and most recently cybersecurity issues – Chinese “state-sponsored hacking” as many in the U.S. have characterized the matter — that impinge directly upon vital national security and business interests.

It is a cliché that capitals invariably depict any summit, often effusively, as having been completely successful in building mutual understanding, advancing common goals, and so forth. So it was no surprise that outgoing National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told the press that the discussions were “positive and constructive, wide-ranging and quite successful in achieving the goals that we set for this meeting.”[7] Parsing carefully the post-summit announcements, official public rhetoric and authoritative backgrounders can only offer a few initial clues regarding the tone and content of the lengthy discussions.  A more reliable estimate will emerge from subsequent digging by journalists, commentary by quasi-official and clued-in sources, and a dispassionate look at what may have changed – and what has not.  One should work from an analytical checklist including the following:

  •  Regularizing annual “shirt-sleeves” summits as a feature of U.S.-China bilateral relations: President Xi extended the expected invitation to President Obama to visit China, but will the format be more akin to Sunnylands or to the usual scripted events with a cast of countless spear-carriers? How will Beijing and Washington characterize such meetings to their respective publics and to other nations? For now, National Security Adviser Donilon has indicated simply that President Obama “would like to have a similar session in China.”
  • Strategic understanding, dispelling mutual mistrust: Did President Obama’s discussion of the U.S. “rebalancing” (or “pivot”) to Asia reassure President Xi and his colleagues, or do the Chinese still tend to interpret it as a thinly-veiled effort to constrain and contain China? As PLA Academy of Military Science Major General Yao Yunzhu put it in a blunt query to Secretary Hagel at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue: How could Hagel reassure China that 60% of U.S. naval assets to be in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 were not part of “a containment strategy designed to counter China’s rising influence and offset (its) increasing military capabilities? … China is not convinced.” Both sides referred to the desirability of enhancing military-military dialogue, transparency and mutual understanding. There will be an accelerated pace of counterpart visits and dialogues. But will the U.S. side increase its understanding of China’s military modernization and how it fits into Xi Jinping’s signature slogan of the “China Dream”? What about China’s pursuit of “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities seemingly aimed at deterring any U.S. intervention in a Taiwan scenario? How will Beijing react to major U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK naval exercises in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea? What about U.S. insistence upon “freedom of navigation” – with all that might imply for military reconnaissance and intelligence collection – in the South China Sea and within China’s EEZ?
  • Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): Sometimes described as the “third pillar” or the “economic pillar” of the U.S. “rebalancing” to Asia, the TPP was initially seen by many in China as a U.S. device to weave a new web of economic relationships solidifying the U.S. position in East Asia while excluding China. In the run-up to the summit, however, Washington seemed more amenable to possible Chinese participation, while Beijing suggested a new disposition to study the TPP proposal. How was this discussed, and will progress toward a TPP accord include or exclude China? 
  • U.S.-Japan Alliance Ties and “Post-World War II Arrangements”: Beijing has pressed for the U.S. to adopt a “genuinely neutral” stance on the Senkaku (Diaoyu) dispute – in other words, retreating from its long-standing position that the islands are “under Japanese administrative control” and so the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty would be triggered in the event of any attack.  It has also sought to win Washington’s sympathy for its view that a right-wing tide is sweeping over Japan that threatens to overturn postwar “arrangements” (undefined, but presumably signifying Japan’s defense posture and capabilities), and has tacitly called upon Washington to press Tokyo not to move in such a direction. How were these matters addressed at Sunnylands? NSA Donilon dodged a direct query, saying that the Senkaku issue had been discussed “at some length” but offering only a three-sentence statement of the familiar U.S. position. How was this received by Xi?  We don’t yet know. 
  • North Korea: China’s stance on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and pattern of provocative actions has inched closer to the U.S. concerns and policy position over recent months. Beijing has joined other UNSC members in imposing – and enforcing – new sanctions on Pyongyang. It has been publicly more critical of the DPRK. It has closed a DPRK bank and subjected DPRK-bound cargo to closer inspections. It has reportedly deflected DPRK overtures for an early trip to Beijing by Kim Jong-un. NSA Donilon told the media that “we had quite a bit of alignment on the North Korean issue, and absolute agreement that we would continue to work together on concrete steps … with respect to the [North’s] nuclear program.” But has China’s strategic calculus altered, or merely its tactics and its public rhetoric? What did Xi Jinping share with President Obama on the recent visit to Beijing by North Korea’s influential General Choe Ryong-hae? Did China press for an explicit or implicit quid-pro-quo involving Chinese actions on North Korea and American “reciprocal” actions or undertakings (e.g., with respect to US-ROK military exercises, the U.S.-Japan alliance, or Taiwan arms sales – all of them matters that have been broached by prominent Chinese think tank scholars)? 
  • Taiwan: The so-called “three T’s” – Taiwan, Tibet and trade – have recently been off the bilateral front-burner agenda. It was not mentioned in U.S. official statements and backgrounders prior to or following the Sunnylands summit. President Obama last received the Dalai Lama in July 2011, and last announced a major arms package to Taiwan in September 2011. Although Beijing publicly slammed that last arms package, knowledgeable Chinese conceded privately that the leadership had found reassurance in President Obama’s decision not to sell the more advanced F-16C/D fighters. Moreover, the warming trend in cross-strait ties continues apace. Even so, questions remain in Beijing about the slow pace of movement toward political talks with Taipei and about U.S. future intentions regarding arms transfers. Were any new understandings sought and reached in these areas? 
  • Cyber security “rules of the road”: The two sides announced in advance of the Sunnylands summit that cyber issues would be regularly addressed through a Strategic & Economic Dialogue working group. U.S. “senior administration officials” from the NSC laid heavy emphasis on cyber issues in the pre-meeting backgrounder. One of the officials underlined that “the thing to look for (out of the meeting) is recognition on China’s part of the urgency and scope of the problem and the risk it entails to their and our respective interests (including) the need to protect both intellectual property and the U.S. economy from cyber threats.” Presidents Obama, who called cyber matters “uncharted waters,” and Xi both affirmed in their public remarks at Sunnylands that the issues are complex, a threat to both nations, and deserving of close cooperation. Both expressed pleasure that a cyber working group had been established. But those vanilla sentiments seemingly fell short of what the NSC official had hoped to hear from the Chinese. NSA Donilon said afterwards that President Obama had “underscored that resolving this issue [of cyber-enabled economic theft] is really key to the future of U.S.-China economic relations” and that if left unresolved it “was going to be an inhibitor to the relationships really reaching its full potential.” Will there now be a measurable change in the pattern of cyber attacks against U.S. government servers, national infrastructure and business firms?  Will there be any progress in setting an agreed agenda for the cyber working group – including agreement on what any “rules of the road” must appropriately embrace? 
  • Chinese access to U.S. market: Beijing has regularly countered U.S. concerns about Chinese currency valuation, the balance of bilateral trade, and the absence of a “level playing field” for U.S. firms in China by calling for a “sincere” U.S. effort to remove barriers to Chinese access to the U.S. domestic market and to Chinese purchase of still restricted high technology items. China has complained that Huawei Technologies has been shut off of the U.S. market over security concerns; that the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. has operated non-transparently in a manner prejudicial to good-faith Chinese efforts to invest in non-strategic sectors of the U.S. economy; and that the U.S. has not dismantled sanctions dating back in Tiananmen Square 1989 and export restrictions dating to the Cold War period. The latest test case for China is the current bid by Shuanghui International to purchase Smithfield Foods – a bid to which some in Congress and the media have already expressed opposition. Will the “new type of great power relations” that is the stated aim of both parties find a way to accommodate some of these Chinese concerns? Will the U.S. administration be willing to invest the domestic political capital necessary to help overcome general suspicions of Chinese strategic intentions and specific opposition to proposed Chinese investments and purchases?

Don Keyser, a retired U.S. State Department senior Foreign Service officer, is a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Nottingham China Policy Institute.

[1] Allison introduced the concept in “Thucydides’s Trap Has Been Sprung in the Pacific,” Financial Times, August 21, 2012.   He developed the idea in “Obama and Xi Must Think Broadly to Avoid a Classic Trap,” New York Times, June 6, 2013.

[2] It is worth recalling that when Vice President Hu Jintao visited Washington in May 2002, five months ahead of his assumption of the presidency from Jiang Zemin, Washington backgrounding featured growing appraisals of Hu’s command of his brief, his pragmatism, and his “modern” style – all in explicit contrast to Jiang Zemin.

[3] White House press release, June 4, 2013, full text of backgrounder on the Obama-Xi summit by “senior administration officials.”

[4] Professor Sun is quoted in “U.S.-China Meeting’s Aim: Personal Diplomacy,” New York Times, June 5, 2013.

[5] Professor Shi is quoted in “U.S.-China Summit Reveals Beijing’s Drive,” Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2013.

[6] White House press release, June 7, 2013, 8:09 p.m. PDT

[7] White House press release, June 8, 2013, 2:27 PDT


  1. “Thucydides Trap” what a wonderful reflection of the current relationship between the countries. I am fan of Obama though and I think his strength really lies in international politics.

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