CA Summit: Risk and Refuge in Informality

Presidents Xi and Obama will be retreating to the California desert today for their uncharacteristically casual first meeting as political counterparts. With this summit kicking off a week after the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Mt. Everest‘s summit, Evan Osnos looks to the histories of Himalayan mountaineering and of the diplomatic lexicon to note a lack of coincidence. From the New Yorker:

In February, 1950, as the world slid in to the Cold War, Winston Churchill appealed for high-level talks with the Soviet Union on the belief, as he put it, that it was hard to see “how matters could be worsened by a parley at the summit.” The word “summit” had no history in , but it happened to be on people’s lips that year, in part because mountaineers were trying (in vain) to reach the top of Mt. Everest. When Churchill used it again, in May, 1953—calling for a commitment to peace “at the summit of the nations”—the circumstances were auspicious: the mountaineers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were already climbing, and, by the end of the month, they were on the peak.

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of high-altitude summitry—both diplomatic and Himalayan—and it finds us at a moment of immense possibility and risk: when Presidents Obama and meet in the California desert tomorrow, away from the hothouses of Beijing and Washington, the unusual circumstances will reflect an attempt to short-circuit the feeling, on both sides, that a dangerous energy is accumulating in the diplomatic relationship of the world’s two most important countries.[…] [Source]

This weekend’s meeting will take place at the Sunnylands estate in the resort city of Rancho Mirage, and has been organized in an unscripted, open-ended, and informal manner. Bloomberg notes that this approach may be an attempt to develop understanding and personal rapport in a diplomatic relationship that has lately seen tension on many fronts:

Breaking a tradition of choreographed talks between leaders of the two biggest global economies, the presidents have scheduled six hours of unscripted meetings, a leisurely dinner, and, if things go well, perhaps a sunset stroll in the shadow of the San Jacinto mountains.

[…]White House aides say the gathering will give Obama and Xi a chance to build personal diplomacy to help reset relations that have become strained as China’s economy expands and as the U.S. confronts the Chinese government over matters including human rights and computer hacking.

Rather than focus on the thorny international issues that have long defined the U.S.-China ties, Obama and Xi plan to exchange ideas on how to jointly manage the countries’ long-term economic and security issues. [Source]

The New York Times profiles Cui Tiankai, the newly installed Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. and a man who stressed the need for a private meet-and-greet between Xi and Obama prior to taking his post in April:

The Chinese diplomat with perhaps the deepest knowledge of the United States, , the country’s ambassador in Washington, is its chief behind-the-scenes facilitator for the meeting that will bring together Mr. Xi and President Obama at Sunnylands, the Walter H. Annenberg desert estate, starting Friday.

Before leaving Beijing to take up his ambassadorial post in April, Mr. Cui suggested to those around him the urgent need for the two leaders to know each other and to meet privately — somewhere outside the capitals, he said — so the recent scratchiness of the United States-China relationship could be smoothed. [Source]

While personal diplomacy may be a boon to the leaders’ long-term goals, Qinghua University’s Yan Xuetong suggests that an acknowledgment of mutual distrust would be more productive than any amount of feigned friendship. From Foreign Policy:

Both Beijing and Washington seem to believe that a lack of trust is the reason for this unfortunate state of affairs [of deteriorating relations]. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama argued, “we still have to do serious work if we are to create the level of mutual trust necessary for long-term cooperation.” Chinese President Hu Jintao reiterated that sentiment during a meeting with Obama in June, speaking of the need for “mutual trust” to bring the two countries closer together.

Fortunately, the task of getting the Sino-U.S. relationship back on track may not be so daunting. There are thousands of examples of strategic cooperation without mutual trust between major powers throughout human history.[…]

States cooperate not because of mutual trust, but because of shared interests that make cooperation safe and productive. China and the United States should look hard to identify what these incentives and shared interests are — and focus on developing positive cooperation when their interests overlap or complement one another, such as on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and preventive cooperation when their interests conflict, such as on preventing collisions in South China Sea.

Mutual trust is a result rather than precondition of strategic cooperation between major powers. Because they are not allies, neither the United States nor China can expect the other side to always respond favorably to its interests. Each should learn how to calmly respond to the other’s unfavorable policies. An unfriendly, but stable relationship would be healthier for both parties than a disingenuous “friendship” that is volatile below the surface. [Source]

The informal setting of the 2013 California Summit has been identified as an opportunity for China’s charismatic new president to further distinguish himself from Hu Jintao, his rigidly formal predecessor. In 2009, Hu hosted Obama at a Beijing summit that starkly contrasted the planned informality of this weekend’s affair, and exposed major divisions in the views of the two leaders. But, a lot has changed since 2009, both regarding Beijing/CCP leadership and the two countries’ economies. Hope exists that, with a relaxed ambiance and a new Chinese leader, the 2013 summit will prove to be more productive. The Telegraph reports:

[F]or Jon Huntsman, the then US ambassador to China who was intimately involved in that frosty 2009 stand-off, perhaps the biggest change starts at the top, with the figure of Xi (pronounced “Shee”) Jinping who, on so many levels, is a fundamentally different character and political animal from Hu Jintao. “Xi is a very different personality than Hu Jintao, who was scripted, who was cold, who was not inclined to improvise,” he says, shortly before jetting off to spend a summer in Asia doing business, making speeches and working old contacts. “With Xi Jinping, you have someone who carries with him real confidence, a sense that they’ve consolidated a very important power base and a future that suggests he’s going to be around for a long time.”

Hence the sense of importance and real possibility that those involved in this summit feel. For once, it really is about more than window-dressing and the reading out of joint statements prepared weeks in advance. [Source]

However, as Russell Leigh Moses points out in a Wall Street Journal blogpost, there is anxiety at home that Xi may be out of his element in such an intimate atmosphere:

There also has to be anxiety in some inner circles in China—given the long session that is planned for the two presidents—for how Xi will interact with Obama. Previous encounters were far too brief for Xi to witness the intellect and charm that the American president brings to meetings such as this. And while much of the Party media has highlighted in the past few months the various shortcomings of the United States — from payroll problems (in Chinese) to the ill treatment of Chinese air passengers (in Chinese) — Xi has to know that American society is more complex and robust, and run by someone whose experience in high office is deeper and lengthier than his own.

Nonetheless, it will be an interesting challenge for Xi to maintain his approachability for the U.S. while being mindful of those in China who think that now is the moment to press Washington on a whole host of issues, especially where China’s military rise is concerned (in Chinese).

Xi’s been more forceful than nuanced here in China; he will need to be precisely the opposite in California. [Source]

For more on this weekend’s meeting between Presidents Xi and Obama, see all CDT coverage of the 2013 California Summit.