When President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping hold an informal summit today and Saturday in California, it will be their first get-together since Xi became China’s president.
The meeting comes at a time when growing mistrust, concerns about cyber attacks and the question of how to deal with North Korea are among a range of issues testing ties. Despite those challenges, expectations are high in China that the meeting will be a crucial if not historic moment for the two countries to put relations on more stable footing.
Coming into this week’s meeting, both China and the United States are talking up the importance of ties and the need to find ways to better work together. The United States has a list of concerns it wants to address. China does too, but Beijing is putting more of its emphasis on a vision it has for U.S.-China relations.
Talking about that vision earlier this week, China’s Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said the upcoming meeting would be strategic and historic. According to a Xinhua news report, Cui says the talks will include in-depth discussions on major issues about how to build ties and a new type of great power relationship between the two countries. China feels that by publicly recognizing each other as great powers, one emerging and the other an established power, the two can avoid conflict.
Pang Zhongying, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing, said: “I think this is a very important opportunity, because the meeting is very informal and candid and casual. Perhaps this is just happening by chance, or perhaps they’re making history. I do hope they’re making history, but I don’t know if they’ll be able to grab this chance or they’ll let it go.”
White House officials say they want to cover as many issues as possible during the meetings and focus on forging a working relationship. U.S. officials have given China’s new idea some attention, mentioning it in speeches, but their focus more often than not has been on other issues.
“Sometimes the Americans like to give a name to China-U.S. relations. Strangely, this time the Chinese also care about how to define China-U.S. relations. But once they’ve discuss the definition, the Americans want to talk concrete issues,” Pang said.
Not all believe the meeting will achieve groundbreaking results.
Xie Tao, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said he believes the meeting is more about developing personal trust. He said it is an opportunity for the two leaders to get a sense of whether they can be friends.
“I think that’s why it’s set up in such an informal and private setting, unlike the previous couple of summits between Chinese and American leaders,” Xie said. “So the expectation is that the two leaders they will build up personal trust and that trust probably will spill over to the other areas. And so that will help the lower level officials, the real bureaucrats who deal with U.S.-China relations on a day-to-day basis.”
U.S. officials say the two leaders will have ample time to talk and Washington is eager to discuss what hopes will be a broad agenda. Unlike state visits which allow only limited time for in-depth discussions, the two leaders will have a meeting on Friday, a private dinner and then more talks on Saturday before wrapping up around midday. The United States says it wants to talk about human rights, North Korea and cyber attacks that it says originated in China and the impact they are having on U.S. businesses.
Wu Riqiang, an associate professor at the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China, said that before there are ways the U.S. and China could cooperate on cyber security, but added that more clarity is needed about the different types of hacker attacks that exist.
He said the U.S. has yet to give enough information about the first type of attacks, economic losses because of hacker attacks.
“On the second type of hacking, which has to do with intelligence, we cannot do anything, because every one is acting the same way in this regard. China is stealing information about the U.S., and the U.S. is also stealing information from China,” Wu said.
“Nobody is a good guy here, everyone is a crook. The third type of hacking has to do with technical infrastructure which is a common interest for both the U.S. and China, and that is the realm where we can cooperate on how to protect banks system so that there is no breach, or protect our power grid so that it does not collapse,” Wu added.
Xie Tao said North Korea is likely to be a key topic of discussion as well. He said that while China’s position hasn’t made an about face, it has changed significantly.
“We cannot afford to have a country that is a dictatorial, is unpredictable to test nuclear weapons. And besides, close association with a regime like this does no good at all to China, I think eventually our leaders realize that, we need to change our course,” he said. “Many people don’t like the word abandon but I think we’re changing our course.”
China has repeatedly urged North Korea to reform its economy and return to the six-party talks on ending its nuclear weapons programs. In a briefing earlier this week, White House officials say that even as it has been raising concerns about cyber issues, Beijing and Washington have had pretty constructive cooperation on North Korea.