What Would the Best U.S.-China Joint Statement Say?

A ChinaFile Conversation

As we approach the June 7-8 meeting in California of U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping we are holding a small contest. We have asked ChinaFile Conversation regulars and a few guests to envision their ideal Sunnylands summit and then write the joint statement such a summit would produce.


We emerge from these discussions with a much fuller understanding of each other's strategic goals and redlines. As our predecessors did in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, we identified where we agree and should expand; where we disagree and must manage; and where we should seek greater convergence. Our nations will not be close partners because of deep contrasts in our political systems and different approaches to some international issues. We need not be enemies because we have no territorial disputes, enjoy vast bilateral benefits, and share interests on many global challenges. We have set the following priorities: North Korea, maritime rules of the road, cyber security, energy and the environment. We will stay in constant personal contact to prevent misunderstandings and spur progress. We will meet privately at least once a year in settings like this, as well as at international conferences.

We have spent an unusually productive two days together here at Sunnylands. Although we have enjoyed the process of getting to know each other better, obviously we have not solved all the difficult problems that beset U.S.-China relations. However, we want the people of our respective countries—indeed of the world, to know that we both are fully cognizant of the inescapable roles and responsibilities our two countries now shoulder in our newly globalized world. Above all, we recognize that we must adopt new and innovative modes of interaction if we are to avoid preventing certain very contentious issues from obstructing our collective progress on equally urgent issues that bind us together in common interest. We simply cannot allow any one of the great challenges of our generation—that range from climate change, nuclear proliferation, and world trade, to global pandemics, a shortage of water and the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes—to obstruct us from addressing all of the others. Only if the U.S. and China are able to work shoulder to shoulder will these new global problems have any hope of remedy. So, while we understand that we must continue to broach difficult problem areas where resolution will take time, we also have dedicated ourselves anew not to abdicate our responsibility on the the challenges which will determine the fates of the people's of both nations. You have our assurances that from henceforth we both will work together to assure that both governments assume these new leadership roles in new and more constructive ways.

While today we do not have concrete answers to any of our common problems, we want to assure everyone on our common planet that in the months to come we will bend ourselves with new and unstinting vigor to this task.  We both recognize that only through such a renewed effort will we ever be able to elevate U.S.-China relations to the level of effective interaction that the world now requires.

Editors’ note: ChinaFile Conversation guest contributor J. Stapleton Roy, who served as U.S. Ambassador to China from 1991–95, writes in to say:

“The informal talks between U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Sunnylands, California on June 7-8, will be the first opportunity for the two presidents to exchange views on how to create a new type of great power relationship that can stabilize and reduce strategic rivalry between the two countries, a goal both have endorsed. This alone would justify the meeting. They should also candidly review sources of tension in East Asia and the Middle East and discuss how to moderate areas of bilateral friction. The concluding joint statement by the two leaders will set the tone for the relationship over the next few years. It should strike the right notes. It would be a major accomplishment if the two leaders could agree to continue to hold periodic informal meetings in the future.”
Amb. Roy’s draft Joint Statement:
U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping held candid and constructive conversations in a cordial and informal atmosphere in Sunnylands, California on June 7-8, 2013. The two leaders pledged to seek jointly to create a new type of great power relationship marked by a stable balance between cooperation and competition, believing that this would contribute to regional and global peace and prosperity. They noted the relevance of how the two militaries operate in the Asia Pacific to this goal. They welcomed the expansion of bilateral military-to-military contacts over the past year. They explored how to build on their common interests in addressing sources of tension in East Asia and the Middle East, and stressed their commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. They reviewed areas of friction between the two countries and outlined their respective views on human rights, free speech, the rule of law, and the treatment of intellectual property. They agreed on the desirability of establishing ground rules for dealing with issues such as cyber threats, outer space, maritime security, and developing polar regions. They reaffirmed the importance of the bilateral Strategic & Economic Dialogue in meeting the above goals and in addressing other areas in the relationship requiring high level attention. President Xi Jinping expressed pleasure over the growing number of U.S. students and scholars studying in China. President Obama spoke positively of the role that increased Chinese investment in the United States could play in stimulating the U.S. economy.  The two leaders agreed such informal meetings should continue on appropriate occasions in the future.

One thing I learned from my brief career as a government speechwriter is that you can always find different ways to present a concept or phrase a sentiment—but that after a certain point, “more” suggestions did not necessarily mean “better” ideas. Or even better prose. We’ve already had the benefit of three very sensible suggestions, from three wise and veteran observers, of what we might hope from the upcoming meeting. I would be happy with almost any combination of paragraphs, or even discrete sentences, taken from any of the draft statements and combined with the others. Seriously, it’s interesting that people with differing, but all extensive, exposure to modern China see so many points of similarity in what Americans, Chinese, and others might ideally hope from the upcoming meetings.

Instead of adding another draft, I’ll provide a brief “thought bubble” version of the closing statements. This will be an approximation of what the two presidents wish they could really say when the meetings are over, for comparison with whatever ends up being the official joint-statement version.

On the U.S. side, the thought-bubble over Barack Obama’s head might say: “Well, let’s hope he got the message. This cyber stuff really is a problem—and if the Chinese aren’t careful, they are going to end up alienating exactly the high-end, globalized, tech-and-manufacturing people who for years have been the greatest advocates of a stronger U.S.-China relationship. It was good to hear a Chinese leader who was willing to move past the standard ‘Oh no, we are purely the victims of hacking!’ charade. And these green-tech initiatives we are jointly promoting may be the most important thing the two countries can do together during my—or Xi’s—time. I’ve got to say, too, that it’s a relief to meet a Chinese leader who doesn’t assume that the U.S. has already consigned itself to the dustbin of history, as all of those prideful people I saw around Hu Jintao four years ago did. We’ve got problems —they’ve got bigger ones. And meanwhile I know that no Chinese leader is ever really going to believe that we’re not trying to contain them and deny them their place in the sun.

So, let’s have a great big smile and handshake, and the debut of what they call ‘the new era in great power relations.’ Ooops, I forgot that they say ‘MAJOR power relations.’ And I am glad that Michelle decided that she needed to stay in DC because of “the girls last week of school.” It's nice not to have to deal with all the complications of pictures of her with that Ms. Xi, who they call Peng Liyuan.”

And on the Chinese side, the thought bubble above Xi Jinping: “This was fun! I had a great time visiting Joe Biden in Washington last year, and going back to that farm in Muscatine, Iowa. Yeah, yeah, we’re going to have a lot of problems with these Americans on my watch. Good thing I have five-plus more years to work on them than this poor Obama does. And by the way, have you noticed how gray he is looking? It’s also a good thing that leaders of a rising China never show a single gray hair! Anyhow, he’s got problems, I’ve got problems. But this has been a nice few days.”