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How should we think about the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama? In case there is any confusion, here are my four takeaways and taglines from Barack and Xi’s most excellent adventure.
Actions speak louder than words (and photo ops)—It is now official that Chinese President Xi Jinping is more charismatic and has better speechwriters than his predecessor Hu Jintao. One might argue that this means little given the low bar, but I think we can be more generous than that. While in Seattle, he made some jokes, invited one hundred students to visit China, and smiled frequently. Of course, how well Xi speaks, smiles, and plays ping pong does not really matter anymore. After three years of Xi as general secretary of the Communist Party of China and two-and-a-half years as president of China, Washington is no longer wooed or wowed by words. Xi has achieved significant success in moving the goalpost in the U.S.-China relationship; unfortunately most all of the movement has been in the wrong direction. We have more conflict in the Asia-Pacific and in cyberspace, less faith in China’s market reforms and opening to the West, and greater concern over the degree of human rights violations and political freedom in China.
When all else fails, we always have climate change—The big news once again is on the climate front. Beijing has announced the establishment of a national cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions in China by 2017 and a significant Chinese financial contribution for developing countries’ efforts to address climate change. They help cement the pledges the two nations made last November on the sidelines of APEC and offer significant symbolic value for the upcoming Paris climate talks. Now we just have to cross our fingers and hope that Chinese economic and institutional reform moves forward in ways that will support effective implementation of a cap-and-trade effort.
The United Kingdom has lost its way –Admittedly, this is not technically related to the U.S.-China summit. However, the UK Chancellor George Osborne provided quite a distracting sideshow to the summit, discussing how he wants to “bond” with China and promising to be Beijing’s new best friend in the West. During his trip to China—which occurred at the same time as Xi’s state visit to the United States—Osborne was praised by China’s Global Times for not “raising the human rights issue.” Following on the heels of the British ambassador to China’s embarrassing refusal to issue the world-renowned—but politically sensitive—Chinese artist Ai Weiwei a six-month visa and to instead grant him only a restricted three-week visa (a decision later reversed by London), the United Kingdom seems to be charting a new foreign policy course. Of course, one can do business with China without forsaking the basic political values for which your country stands. Surprisingly, perhaps, the United Kingdom need look no further than nearby Germany for guidance on this front.
Neither side will get what it wants most, but all is not lost—As I suggested in my post two weeks ago, Beijing is not going to get Washington to acknowledge that China is on equal footing with the United States as a global power or that it supports its political system and security priorities. Nor is Washington going to get Beijing to halt cyberattacks (no matter the joint statement of intent), stop pushing forward on its South and East China Sea claims, or pull way back on the draft NGO law. Nonetheless, beginning with climate change, there seems to be a genuine common interest in working together—or at least side by side—to address global challenges or to undertake joint projects in third countries. For the rest of the world, which really doesn’t care about whether the United States and China have a “new relationship,” or a “new relationship among major powers,” this is all that matters.