Xi’s Not Ready

Why Obama should skip the shirt-sleeves summit with China's new leader.

Cory Lum-Pool/Getty Images
Cory Lum-Pool/Getty Images

Later this week, President Obama will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the exclusive Sunnylands estate in California. The two administrations are pitching it as a ‘shirt-sleeves’ summit,’ to emphasize that it won’t be the typical, formalized, agenda-driven meeting. Instead, the ambience will supposedly allow for a greater degree of openness to "constructively manage" the two sides’ differences, as the White House press office delicately puts it. Unlike the stuffy, robotic former Chinese president Hu Jintao, Xi is seen as a more dynamic and engaging. Indeed, Xi’s 2012 visit to the United States, before he became China’s paramount leader, consciously tried to portray him as a regular guy, including a nostalgic return to a farm in Iowa he once briefly visited nearly three decades ago. Believing in Obama’s informal touch, the White House is betting that personalizing the relationship between the two leaders could help the two sides break through distrust, and revitalize stagnant policy discussions.

But summits like this one should be reserved for friends and allies with whom the United States has close working relationships. George Bush’s 2006 Graceland meeting with Junichiro Koizumi, for example, rewarded the then Japanese prime minister’s path-breaking support for Bush’s war on terror. Similarly, Bush often invited close allies to his Crawford, Texas ranch. Getting the personal treatment from the president of the United States is some of the most valuable political capital any foreign leader can receive, regardless of the concrete outcomes of the meeting. Obama has also provided the homespun touch to close allies, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, who sat next to the president at a basketball game last year, in Ohio.

Yet U.S. relations with Japan and Britain are completely different than those with China. Just last week, the news broke that China has been hacking the United States’ most advanced weapons systems; Chinese theft of intellectual property — both military and commercial — remains rampant. Beijing continues to support rogue regimes around the world, including North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Sudan. Its paramilitary forces, such as its maritime patrol fleet, intimidate smaller Asian nations like Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. So why is the United States rewarding China, when it should be censuring it instead?

The short answer, of course, is that America is economically dependent on China, with nearly $400 billion dollars in bilateral trade each year, and nearly $1 trillion of U.S. debt held by Beijing. Washington’s fears of somehow upsetting this economic relationship have hamstrung consecutive administrations, who have warily watched China’s military growth while doing everything possible to encourage economic ties.

Yet as China has grown stronger, it has also become far more assertive, creating uncertainty and even instability in Asia, while undermining liberal norms around the world. In spite of this, the Obama administration is doubling down on its engagement with Beijing. This week’s summit is not the only gift that the United States has given China. The Obama administration invited China to join the RIMPAC naval exercise, which is an annual naval practice normally reserved for close American partners. In addition, the top-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held annually, has become one of the most-publicized diplomatic initiatives undertaken by Washington. The Chinese leadership must be delighted — why should they modify their behavior when Washington’s China policy is all carrot and no stick?

The administration is forgetting that national interests, and not personalities, drive international politics. It needs to free itself from the idea that finding the soft spot in a foreign leader antagonistic towards the United States improves bilateral relationships. At least since Leonid Brezhnev, U.S. presidents have been trying to tap into the personal side of authoritarian leaders, so as to penetrate the bureaucratic armor that they believe prevents a more meaningful exchanges of ideas.

That, in fact, is one of the great arguments made in favor of regular meetings: that personalities on both sides will not only come to understand each other better, but that our side will come away with keener insight into the preferences and biases of opposing leaders, and have a line into seeing how decisions are made. Yet, despite years of regular communication, the gulf that exists between Chinese and American views of the world belies the idea that summits, no matter how chummy, can create a community of interests where none exist. National interests, not Xi’s seemingly effusive personality, will dictate just how much Beijing is willing to reconsider its policy goals. In reality, there are almost no shared values between Beijing and Washington, and little complementary policy. The Chinese engage with the United States because it allows them to play the charade of backslapping, while sidestepping tough issues. 

Unfortunately, Washington finds itself in a dialogue dependency trap. The metric for judging the success of the relationship has devolved to a question of how often and at what level U.S. officials meet the Chinese. The government and proponents of continued dialogue assert that it’s of great value to know one’s counterpart, in case there’s a need to make that 3 a.m. call. The Chinese encourage such thinking, as seen in the statements by a leading academic that, "as long as China and the United States can work to genuinely place themselves in the other’s shoes, they have a good chance of minimizing the potential for conflict and of building lasting trust."

But again, that mistakes the personal for the professional, especially between political systems so antithetical to each other as America’s and China’s. Crises will be resolved if both parties feel it is in their interest, not according to the strength of the personal relationship between leaders. After all, former President George H.W. Bush’s longtime experience in China and close relations with its leaders did nothing to avert the Tiananmen Square massacre. Similarly, Vice President Joe Biden is reputed to have rapport with Xi since their meeting in 2012, but that hasn’t translated into any resolution of our outstanding differences, or in the tamping down of tensions with U.S. allies in the East and South China Seas.

While it is too late to pull out of this summit, the president still has time to come up with a concrete list of issues that Washington expects movement on. He should make it clear that this experiment in going outside the boundaries of traditional Sino-U.S. meetings will be a one-off if there is no change in Chinese behavior. A better approach in general would be to restrict such top-level meetings until truly necessary, or when it is clear that some agreement on a significant issue has been reached and there will be a measureable outcome. Washington needs not merely to accept that its relations with China are purely transactional, but to act that way, as well. 

Focusing on results during future
summits would communicate that Washington is serious about protecting its interests. While our diplomats certainly deal seriously with their Chinese counterparts, the tone set at the top of this administration (and previous ones) has been too accommodating, too willing to play what we think is the long-game of engagement, while ignoring the longer Chinese game of undermining U.S. influence in Asia and globally while avoiding commitment to solving disagreements between us. Unfortunately, this week’s "shirt-sleeves" summit will fail to produce a more meaningful U.S.-China relationship because it is driven by wishful thinking, and not by a ruthless desire to protect U.S. interests.


Michael Auslin is the Payson J. Treat distinguished research fellow in contemporary Asia at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics. He co-hosts The Pacific Century podcast at Hoover.

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