What Should Obama and Xi Accomplish at Their California Summit?

What Should Obama and Xi Accomplish at Their California Summit?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Susan Shirk:

It’s an excellent idea for President Obama and President Xi to spend two days of quality time together at a private retreat in Southern California. Past meetings between Chinese and American presidents have been too short, formal and scripted for them to develop a genuine personal relationship and understand one another’s real intentions. Vice President Joe Biden and then-Vice-President Xi connected well when they spent almost two weeks traveling together and meeting the public first in China and then in the U.S.

Now Obama and Xi will have the same opportunity to develop the rapport that can help them solve problems and manage crises during their terms. Especially in a non-democratic country like China, the leader’s personal investment in good relations with the U.S. is one of the greatest diplomatic assets we can have.

We shouldn’t expect any major agreements or other “deliverables” to result from this meeting. The goal of the encounter is to establish the personal relationship between the two leaders and explore ways to dispel—or at least better manage—the mutual suspicions that have recently been dragging down the relationship. Both leaders are seeking to reassure one another that their intentions are not hostile.

Identifying and discussing common concerns like climate change, terrorism, and unstable regions like the Middle East are a better start than arm wrestling over contentious bilateral issues. The presidents should also be able to find common ground in their frustrations toward the provocative behavior of North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. But the presidents shouldn’t shy away from the tough issues. The value of the meeting will be increased if they can explain to one another why certain actions by the other country—for example, Chinese cyberattacks on American firms and American surveillance activities in Chinese coastal waters—are considered highly offensive.

Obama and Xi also can build empathy by discussing the daunting problems they both face at home. Obama will want to ask Xi what he expects to accomplish in the new round of economic reforms that are being drafted right now. And Xi will want to ask Obama whether he expects to ever get a budget agreement with the Congress. In explaining the political hurdles they face in their domestic initiatives, they can teach one another about the domestic political context in which they operate better than any book or intel briefing can ever do.

Susan L. Shirk is the chair of the 21st Century China Program and Ho Miu Lam Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at UC San...
Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate...
David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language web site that analyzes Chinese media. Founded in December 2011, Tea Leaf Nation was acquired in September 2013 by the Foreign...
Robert Kapp began his working career as an historian of twentieth century China at Rice University and the University of Washington. However, his main career contributions have been to the building...
Elizabeth Economy is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s...
Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He is also chair of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Human Rights and chair of the...
Winston Lord was U.S. Ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989. He was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1993. Before assuming his duties, Ambassador Lord...





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