Couples therapy

Their informal summit will test whether US and China can cooperate without strategic trust

The announcement that US President Barack Obama will have an informal summit with the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California caught even the most seasoned China watchers by surprise. The reason was simple: no such meeting has ever taken place. Top Chinese leaders are sticklers for protocol. They routinely insist on paying nothing but state visits, which require elaborate preparations and ceremonies. Personal vanity aside, their preference for pomp and circumstance is driven mainly by their political calculations. A 21-gun salute and a state dinner at the White House convey to the TV-watching multitudes back home a degree of international respect and legitimacy that is vital to the maintenance of a one-party state and the strengthening of the personal authority of its leader.

So when Beijing and Washington announced that Obama and Xi would meet for two days (June 7-8) in Sunnylands, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, analysts of US-China relations were duly intrigued by the informality of such an important event. According to diplomatic protocol, Xi will have to wait for his official visit to the US until after Obama goes to Beijing (for a second visit) because Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, paid a state visit to Washington in January 2011. More traditional Chinese leaders would almost certainly have rejected such an informal summit because it does not provide the symbolic political value they seek. By accepting such an invitation, Xi perhaps wishes to demonstrate that he is different from his face-obsessed predecessors. If that is the case, Xi has already scored points by being more pragmatic and substantive (Xi will be visiting four Latin American countries after the stop in California).

However, the agenda that awaits Obama and Xi in Sunnylands is a daunting one. US-China relations have deteriorated markedly since Obama’s visit to Beijing in November 2009. In the last three and a half years, Washington’s policy toward Beijing has gone through a dramatic change. Disappointed by Beijing’s lukewarm response to its initial warm outreach and alarmed by assertive Chinese behaviour in East Asia, the Obama administration made a mid-course correction in its China policy in 2010. The result is the “pivot to Asia”, a planned shift of the bulk of American naval forces to Asia as part of a broader strategy designed to prevent China’s rise from disrupting the balance of power in the region. As a result, like his predecessors, President Obama has reverted to a hard-edged policy of “strategic hedging” against China.

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