Summitry or gimmickry?

June 16, 2013
When U.S. President Barack Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands estate in the desert city of Rancho Mirage in California last June 7 and 8, it was one of the most heralded summits in recent history. It measured in importance to the Cold War –era Washington Summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The highlight of the Washington Summit was the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Where’s the meat?
In the two days that Obama and Xi met face-to-face, they clocked a total of eight hours of talks that included a 50-minute walk in the manicured garden of the 200-acre estate with just the two of them and their interpreters. Nobody knows what the two leaders talked about but Obama used the occasion to present a gift to Xi, a bench carved from a California redwood tree.
But in the absence of a formal statement or joint communiqué, it’s hard to put meat on the bones. And this is where pundits and experts stepped up with varied reactions and analyses. Xi’s senior foreign policy adviser called it “a strategic, constructive and historic meeting.” He added, “The two presidents agreed to build a new model of major country relationship between China and the United States based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”
Obama told the reporters the talks were “terrific. ” However, it was reported in the news that the summit ended with “few policy breakthroughs but the prospect of stronger personal ties.”
For the two-day no-necktie “informal” meeting, Obama and Xi agreed to cooperate on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and to confront climate change.
But didn’t North Korea already agree to return to the negotiation table to discuss denuclearization before Xi left for the summit? If so, and it was so, then North Korea shouldn’t have been on the agenda. It was a done deal.
On climate change, Obama and Xi agreed to decrease production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in air conditioners and refrigerators. Since the U.S. and China are the world’s biggest emitters of HFCs, it was in their best interest to deal with this problem in their own backyards. But since it is also the problem with industrialized and developed countries, then the United Nations should take the lead in dealing with climate change.
Their disagreement was evident when they issued separate statements at their joint press conference after the first day of the summit. Obama told reporters the two countries must deal with cybertheft of U.S. intellectual property. But Xi claimed that China was also a victim of cyberattacks.
The following day, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who was privy to the discussions, told reporters that “Obama presented to Xi and his delegation details of hacking incidents emanating from China. Obama told Xi that if the cybertheft continues, it will affect economic relations of the two countries.” Seemingly, Xi could have cared less. Does anyone think that China would stop hacking U.S.’s classified defense technology if it didn’t benefit her?
It’s interesting to note that the members of the Chinese delegation showed their mistrust of the U.S. when they made a last-minute decision not to stay at Sunnylands. Instead they bunked in a downtown hotel purportedly to minimize the risk of electronic eavesdropping. Makes one wonder if it is a Chinese practice to bug the rooms of foreign dignitaries visiting China.
Walk in the park
Other than their agreement to deal with climate change and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, there was not much accomplished. Their summit was just a walk in the park.
But what surprised a lot of China-watchers is that Obama failed to discuss the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Makes one wonder if Obama is sending a silent signal to China that the U.S. would not intervene in a Chinese military incursion into the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu to China) in the East China Sea and the Spratly archipelago and the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. It seems that Obama had just given Xi a carte blanche to do whatever he wants to do in the disputed islands, which involve the U.S.’s allies, Japan and the Philippines.
Chinese Dream
With China aggressively pursuing her claim of the South China Sea – which she claims as her “core national interest” and is not negotiable — and forcibly occupying the Scarborough Shoal, tension runs high among the six claimant-nations particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. The 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are proposing the adoption of a Code of Conduct (COC) to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which the U.S. endorsed. However, China has yet to accept it.
The summit would have been a great opportunity for Obama to discuss the territorial disputes in East and South China Seas. But his silence encouraged Xi to promote the “Chinese Dream.”
In my commentary, “South China Sea not in Obama-Xi agenda” (June 8, 2013), I wrote: “Is Obama sending a silent signal to China that the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Chinese military incursion in the disputed waters? It would seem that Obama just gave Xi a carte blanche to do whatever he wants to do in the disputed waters.
“It’s interesting to note what Xi told the media as he and Obama were taking a walk on the first day of their summit. Xi told the media that he and Obama were meeting ‘to chart the future of China-US relations and draw a blueprint for this relationship.’ Then he added: ‘The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China.’
“That explains China’s assertion that the South China Sea is part of her continental shelf and therefore it’s her territory. Does the “blueprint” that Xi was talking about involve partitioning the Pacific Ocean between China and the U.S.?”
Global power?
Recently, some high-ranking Chinese officials who visited Washington told their U.S. counterparts that the Pacific is large enough to accommodate two superpowers – the U.S. and China – and that “Washington should quit the entire Western Pacific and cede influence there to Beijing.”
But it’s not only the Western Pacific that China wants to control. Just when Obama and Xi were holding their summit, it was reported in the news that “Nicaragua has awarded a Chinese company a 100-year concession to build an alternative to the Panama Canal, in a step that looks set to have profound geopolitical ramifications.” The report noted that the deal would “reinforce Beijing’s growing influence on global trade and weaken US dominance over the key shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.”
It would seem that Xi’s trip to California was just a “vaudeville act,” which he performed to promote the “Chinese Dream.” Does it impress you that the California summit was just a “pit stop” for Xi on his way home from his visits to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, and Mexico where he is promoting Chinese trade in the region?
At the end of the day, one wonders what really happened at Sunnylands? Was it summitry or gimmickry? (

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