Written by June Teufel Dreyer

For a summit billed as informal—for any summit, for that matter—the Xi-Obama meeting generated an extraordinary amount of media attention.  Speculation abounded over peripheral issues: why was the meeting being held in California rather than in the nation’s capital? Why did First Lady Michelle Obama not plan to attend, even though Xi Jinping would be accompanied by his wife?   A matter of convenience, said some: Xi had visited Trinidad-Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico: California is conveniently located on the way back.  I’m inclined to a semiotic explanation.  In making his first overseas trip after investiture as the PRC’s president to Russia, and the second to the three aforementioned countries, Xi was sending a clear message to Washington that the United States didn’t matter that much to China.   And, by not inviting Xi to Washington, the Obama administration was indicating that the message had been received and it was responding in kind.

As for the non-appearance of Mrs. Obama, while it is true that, as explained, her schedule was already full, many and perhaps all of these appearances could have been re-scheduled should the Xi visit been deemed to have higher priority.  One need not doubt the explanation that she wished to be with her daughters during the last week of their school term—the Obamas have indeed made a consistent effort to make sure the girls have as normal a childhood as possible given the fact that dad is in the White House—but the last week of school is usually one of the most skip-able of the semester.  In the antiquated protocol that guides foreign visits, the consort is expected to appear on formal state visits. Which Xi’s visit to the first three countries on his itinerary definitely were, but this one was not. Madame Obama’s non-appearance may therefore also be explained by semiotics.  As a side benefit, both ladies were thus spared the inevitable media comparisons between them—each stunningly attractive and stylishly dressed, with an impressive career of her own.

In terms of content, results were meager, with the U.S. administration signaling beforehand that deliverables were unlikely.  The meeting, it was said, would allow the leaders to get to know each other—as if they had not already met in Washington last year, when Xi was heir apparent—facilitated by the informal nature of the venue.  Oddly, some media described the meeting as the first one after the leadership transition in both countries, glossing over the fact that Obama had already been president for four years and Xi the PRC’s designated heir for five.  And, the absence of jackets and ties notwithstanding, the meeting was hardly informal.  The leaders sat next to each with a small table in between, with interpreters on either side and flanked by flags. The need to pause frequently for interpretation hardly conduces toward relaxed conversation.

While we do not know everything that the men discussed in private, what has been disclosed has the air of issues long known: North Korea’s provocative behavior, cybersecurity, the trade imbalance, climate change, and American arms sales to Taiwan. In what was probably the most promising advance, at least according to departing national security adviser Tom Donilon, the two agreed that North Korea has to denuclearize and that they would work together to achieve that through pressure on Pyongyang. But what does this mean concretely?  Does it mean China will drop its opposition to United Nations sanctions on the DPRK? That it will order North Korean scientists working in its nuclear facilities to return home? We’ll see—but I wouldn’t suggest holding one’s breath for results.

The other points of agreement were even more nebulous.  Xi evaded Obama’s question on cyberhacking, saying only that the PRC had also been hacked. They agreed that the two sides should develop a protocol on the issue.  Assuming that one is ever agreed upon and signed, does this mean that attacks from PLA facilities will cease?  Nothing was promised on the trade imbalance: According to former PRC foreign minister and now state councilor Yang Jiechi, Xi defended China’s control of its currency and said that this “was not the core issue between them.” On climate change, the two sides agreed that they would work together to address climate change. This, too, would appear devoid of meaning, given China’s adamant stand that, because developed countries polluted the atmosphere during their respective industrialization process, developing countries, the PRC included, should be allowed to do the same.

Although Taiwan government sources expressed relief that Obama had simply reiterated the U.S. position on arms sales to Taiwan, i.e. that they are mandated under the Taiwan Relations Act, and that there had been no change in Washington’s one-China policy, this too means little.  Since 1992 the United States has sold only obsolescent weapons to Taiwan, and relatively few of them. One reason has been Taiwan’s reluctance to buy.  Moreover, under president Ma Ying-jeou, the island’s economic integration with the PRC has deepened to a point where resistance to Beijing’s wishes would court catastrophe.  Hence Beijing has no reason to initiate  military action against the island,  and arms sales to Taipei become irrelevant.   To the distress of human rights activists who hoped for some indication that the U.S. president would raise the issue forcefully, there was no public indication that he had.

It is interesting to compare the U.S. administration’s words with official Chinese commentary on the meeting.  According to coverage in Renmin Ribao, house organ of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee,  and the Global Times, a livelier paper that it sponsors, the two leaders mapped out a new path for ties between the world’s two largest economies. Xi was quoted as saying that the Pacific Ocean was vast enough to accommodate the development of two great powers, and equated the China dream with the American dream.   By contrast, according to White House transcripts, Obama’s statements were more circumspect. The U.S. president said that much work would have to be done before the broad understandings that were achieved could be translated into specifics, a process that might take years—implying that there was a long distance between slogans and reality.  There was no mention of a strategic partnership, which had been spoken of from time to time during the Clinton and subsequent Bush administrations.

Unusually, given Renmin Ribao’s official sponsorship. it was noticed than an earlier edition of the paper had said explicitly that the Chinese dream is completely different from the American dream, since the goal of the Chinese people is to create prosperity for the entire nation while Americans focus only on individual wealth.  And whereas Chinese depend solely on their own strength, Americans exploit the resources of other nations.  (Many Chinese would disagree with the first; a number of people in Africa and Latin America with the second). The American dream is to maintain hegemony and keep any other state from challenging it.   This peculiar discrepancy in the same paper is difficult to explain: the editors could have been blindsided by Xi’s remarks, or it could be the result of factional differences within the leadership.  Netizens conducted a lively debate on comparative dreams, much of it satirical Perhaps the most interesting commentary, and itself a metaphor on relations between the two countries, came from a microblogger who declared that the dreams were in fact connected because so many Chinese people dream of going to the United States.

President Xi has invited Obama for a follow-on meeting in China.  My dream is that the next one will be longer on substance than style.

June Teufel Dreyer is Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Miami.


  1. in a nutshell – China bad, US of A good. can’t bother to get into detailed discussion but cannot overlook the embarrassing levels of bias and ignorance amateurishly hidden behind allegedly thoughtful and impartial analysis. It moved me to tears to read about Obamas doing everything they can to give their children a normal childhood, let alone about poor oppressed Chinese wanting to leave their imperialist, cyber-spying motherland for living the American dream in anti-nuclear, peace loving and ecologically committed US… one of the lowest points of this blog ever…

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