The Xi-Obama Moment
A Post-Summit Assessment
Wang Dong (Peking University) describes the new types of engagement that Presidents Obama and Xi proposed during the summit. Dr. Wang argues that much like the Mao-Nixon meeting in 1972, the Obama-Xi summit created a moment that will set the tone for the future of the U.S.-China relationship.
By Wang Dong
October 21, 2013
Over June 7–8, 2013, U.S. president Barack Obama hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping for a summit at Sunnylands, the serene Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, California. The Xi-Obama summit, an informal, shirt-sleeve event that took place early on in the two leaders’ new administrations, was unprecedented in both its style and timing, and indeed was a rare occurrence in U.S.-China relations in the three decades since normalization. By shrugging off diplomatic formalities, the Xi-Obama summit demonstrated the maturity of the U.S.-China relationship.
The summit has been billed as a meeting of “strategic, constructive, and historic significance” and an “enormously important moment” by Beijing and Washington, respectively. Some analysts even likened it to the Mao-Nixon meeting in 1972 that ushered in a chain of events that “changed the world.” Did the Xi-Obama summit create a historic moment analogous to the Mao-Nixon moment?
On the surface, the Xi-Obama summit looks very different from the Mao-Nixon meeting in terms of its historical and geopolitical context. The Cold War is long over, and there is no geostrategic rival such as the Soviet Union to bind China and the United States together. Nevertheless, some similarities become evident on closer examination. The Mao-Nixon moment was underpinned by an agreement about the two countries’ relative power positions in the international system as well as the convergence of the two leaders’ visions for world politics at the geostrategic level. Likewise, a convergence of expectations and visions for global affairs coming out of the Xi-Obama summit could create new momentum for the U.S.-China relationship. And there is evidence that the two presidents have achieved just that.
The summit came at a critical moment in the U.S.-China relationship. Whereas the two largest economies in the world have become increasingly interdependent in the past decade, friction over issues such as exchange rates, climate change, maritime disputes, and cybersecurity is on the rise. A lack of strategic trust has taken a toll on bilateral relations. Moreover, the potential emergence of a security dilemma in the military and security realms risks turning one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships into a strategic rivalry.
The summit shows that the two leaders have provided the kind of vision that will be badly needed in U.S.-China relations for the years and even decades to come. The vision lies in the answers to the questions President Xi raised at the beginning of the summit meeting: What kind of China-U.S. relations do we need? How are we going to define (or redefine) China-U.S. relations going forward? How can China and the United States cooperate to achieve a win-win situation and promote world peace and development? For hardcore realists, the answers might seem to be self-evident: the U.S.-China relationship is ultimately a zero-sum game, and policymakers ignore that ineluctable fact at their own peril. The two presidents, however, have firmly rejected the pessimistic fatalism inherent in the pure realist vision.
President Xi reiterated that China would “unswervingly adhere to the road of peaceful development” and reaffirmed his conviction that the Pacific Ocean has “enough room to accommodate” both the United States and China, while President Obama stressed that the United States “welcomes the continuing peaceful rise of China as a world power” and expects China and the United States to work together as “equal partners” in addressing regional and global challenges. Moreover, the two leaders affirmed that both countries would endeavor to build a new type of great-power relationship, a proposal recently articulated by Chinese leaders and echoed by their U.S. counterparts. This idea represents the intellectual framework that Chinese leaders have put forward in order to solve one of the greatest puzzles in the history of international relations—how to avoid falling into the so-called Thucydides trap, the oft-repeated cycle of struggle between rising and established powers. By committing to build a new type of great-power relationship between China and the United States, the two presidents essentially vowed—to borrow a phrase from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton—to “write a new answer to [an] old question.” 
One of the primary goals of the Xi-Obama summit was to build personal rapport, trust, and even friendship between the two countries’ top leaders. The summit showed that both presidents are committed to a serious, long-term relationship of the kind that will help foster the strategic trust that has been absent in U.S.-China relations. Trust is not abstract; rather, it begins with the forging of personal bonds at the highest level of leadership on both sides.
Over the course of two informal meetings, one working lunch, and one dinner, Presidents Xi and Obama spent a total of nine hours together. The two leaders even took a 50-minute stroll in the morning before their second meeting. They chatted in a very relaxed manner and talked about their passion for swimming and basketball. The two men shared some personal memories and discussed how these experiences shaped their worldviews: President Xi recalled his days of tendering farms in rural China as a young man, and President Obama reminisced about his youth in Hawaii. Their relaxed body language clearly showed that the two leaders were comfortable with one another and enjoyed their time together.
The meetings covered a broad range of topics in U.S.-China relations, as well as regional and global challenges. What is remarkable about the summit is that the two leaders not only engaged in discussion of what Henry Kissinger calls “philosophical issues”—such as their countries’ relative power positions in the international system and their visions for global affairs—but also went to great lengths to touch on some specific and sensitive bilateral issues. Notably, they did not shy away from discussing thorny topics such as North Korea and cybersecurity.
On North Korea, Presidents Xi and Obama affirmed that Beijing and Washington are “on the same page,” holding firm to the shared goal of denuclearization. Both leaders were in “absolute agreement” that China and the United States, along with other stakeholders, should send a clear and unified message to Pyongyang that a nuclear North Korea will never be accepted by the international community and that Pyongyang cannot expect to “eat its cake and have it too.” In other words, both sides affirmed that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is incompatible with other goals it holds dear, including economic development and normalization of relations with the United States.
The issue of cybersecurity was already in the air even before the summit began. At the summit, the Obama administration wisely narrowed the issue, limiting discussion to “cyber-enabled economic theft,” and the two leaders took a positive and constructive approach to addressing that problem. Instead of engaging in finger-pointing or mutual accusations, they agreed that both sides should sit down and discuss how to build a set of norms and rules to govern cyberactivities. In doing so, they sent a clear message that neither China nor the United States should waste time criticizing the other. Rather, the two countries should take the global lead and begin working with other members of the international community to build an international regime that governs and regulates conduct in cyberspace. Presumably, the two presidents’ agreement will provide guidance to the newly established cyber working group under the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). This joint endeavor should serve as an excellent example of how a new type of great-power relationship can be built and should work.
In addition, both leaders have made a commitment to substantiate and expand military-to-military relations between the United States and China, the weakest link in bilateral ties. During their second meeting, the two presidents also described their respective domestic economic situations and introduced their economic policies. They pledged to enhance cooperation on trade and investment, energy policy, protection of intellectual property, and climate change.
On balance, it appears that the Xi-Obama summit has successfully created a moment analogous to the Mao-Nixon meeting—one that will set the tone for the U.S.-China relationship for years to come. Among other things, the summit was followed both by the successful conclusion of the fifth round of the S&ED in July and by new progress in military-to-military relations, signified by Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan’s visit to the United States in August as well as a series of upcoming joint exercises and high-level defense exchanges.
Such momentum must be sustained, however. The challenge now is how to remain focused and avoid becoming distracted by the crises and incidents that are bound to arise from time to time in a relationship as comprehensive and complex as that between the United States and China (as the recent case of Edward Snowden has highlighted). Both sides need to resist the temptation to score political points at the expense of the other and seek advantage at all costs. Such an approach would be diametrically opposed to the spirit and principles of a new type of great-power relationship. Moreover, Washington and Beijing both bear responsibility for carefully managing sensitive issues such as territorial disputes in the South and East China seas between China and some U.S. allies and partners. Miscalculations or wrong signals might not only disrupt U.S.-China relations but also destabilize regional peace and security.
Going forward, the United States and China need to regularize the kind of informal meeting that took place at Sunnylands. It is therefore encouraging to see that both leaders have promised to continue to maintain close communications, and that President Xi has extended an invitation for President Obama to make a similar visit to China. In order to build a new type of great-power relationship, both sides must continue to try to accurately ascertain the strategic intentions of the other and avoid misperceptions by engaging in genuine dialogue. Institutionalizing informal summit meetings will be conducive to the realization of these goals.
Finally, Presidents Xi and Obama need to inform their respective publics about the true state of the relationship. Each should create a public narrative that stresses the importance of continuous cooperation and highlights areas of common interest and concern. Creating and sustaining such a narrative might prove to be the most challenging task ahead, however, given that the media in each country tends to produce and reproduce prevalent discourses about the “China threat” or “U.S. containment.” Nevertheless, both sides must try their best to break down mutual suspicion and forge new avenues for cooperation. Presidents Xi and Obama have demonstrated their commitment to building a new type of great-power relationship. If they succeed, they will surely be making history.
 Hillary Clinton (remarks at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, U.S. Press Conference, Beijing, May 4, 2012), http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/05/189315.htm.