Breaking It All Down
This week, as President Xi Jinping commences talks with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recalls the Obama-Xi Summit. On Tuesday the 20th of October 2015, host Bob Schieffer conducted an in-depth discussion with three eminent panelists: Kurt Campbell Chairman and CEO of Asia Group, Demetri Sevastopulo Washington Bureau Chief for the Financial Times, and Chris Johnson senior adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.
(Left to Right) Kurt Campbell, Demetri Sevastopulo, Bob Shieffer, Chris Johnson, Washington DC, October 20, 2015 (LaoGai Research Foundation)
The discussion was clear and informative covering a variety of issues. The panelists started by illuminating on President Xi’s character and tenure compared to his predecessors, while deftly outlining the myriad of topics covered in the summit as well as a few issues that desperately need more coverage.
President Xi: What the US learned about him and China
President Xi entered talks with all the pomp and circumstance—twenty-one-gun salute, lavish dinner—that a powerful leader requires. Much of Xi’s visit was focused on economics. Most notably he started his US tour on the west coast speaking with major heads in the technology industry. Since the late 1970s this has been the case with US-China relations. Chinese leaders of the past have tried to put mechanisms in place to force collective decision-making; yet, Xi’s rule is greatly underappreciated. In two years time, Xi has dismantled this mechanism by going after corrupt officials, such as Zhou Yongkang, willing to accept a higher level of tension by making all the decisions.
Former security chief Zhou Yongkang is sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes, abusing power and revealing state secrets (Xinhua)
Chris Johnson noted the Chinese president was determined with his views, self-confident, and although speaking in America and thus to the American people, he was more so speaking to the people of China. There was a particular cadence to the way the two heads-of-state conversed. President Xi clearly articulated his hopes for China-US relations, which he aims to set above issues such as cyber security or human rights.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama meet with the press after their talks in Washington D.C., Sept. 25, 2015. (Xinhua/Huang Jingwen)
Still, Kurt Campbell mentions China “played a steady hand” flashing a unique aura coupled with the leverage the US held. Xi avoided certain topics that would unequivocally weaken his domestic standing. Demetri Sevastopulo drew parallels to Deng Xiaoping proclaiming, “he’s the strongest leader since [Deng]…the way he’s amassed power.”
Comparing China’s Relationship with the US and UK
The US has been critical of Great Britain’s recent relationship with China. Before the visit to the US, President Obama debated trade sanctions as a result of China’s commercial espionage. Inevitably, he held off, but the US announced publily, “You’d better watch out.”
Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron (R) shakes hand with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the UK-China Business Summit at Mansion House in central London, England, October 21, 2015 (Bloomberg)
On the other side of the pond, Great Britain debated whether to name its relationship with China a “Golden Decade” or “Golden Era”. On issues the US deems important: human rights, currency manipulation, cyber espionage the UK has decided “everything is fine as long as trade and Chinese investments are rising…particularly in infrastructure”, notes Sevastopulo, where Britain desperately needs money.
Before former Chinese President Hu Jintao left office, he declared, “China is a Maritime Power,” a statement which had not been made in about 500 years. President Xi has reinforced this sentiment in many of his speeches. It’s no secret; China has been very clear, transparent and broad in its maritime strategy, most notably in the South China Sea with the development of artificial islands.
Contrasted to the mid-1990s, US naval forces easily maneuvered freely during the Taiwan Straight Crisis. Today, the situation would be more complicated. China has encroached with impunity toward its neighbors such as Guam and into the Indian Ocean.
China claims a big back yard in the South China Sea. Neighboring nations stake their own claims. Sources: EIC, Middlebury College, National Geographic, CIA, Facebook
Ten years ago, China lacked the capabilities to control the South Seas. Sevastopulo notices a trend: “There’s a direct correlation between how many ships China has, how far they can go and how assertive they are toward neighbors.”
To China’s credit, they have been very methodical. The islands have grown quickly, but at a consistent pace. No one action is big enough to warrant a military response. At the same time, no one other than the US has the capability to act.
Unfortunately, short of military action, there’s nothing that can be done to prevent China’s progress; both its neighbors and the US have to accept it.
Public Opinion in China
Each of the panelists concluded that Xi acted “strong and determined,” but to the Chinese people they sometimes describe him as “impetuous and impatient,” a label not often given to former leaders. Here in the US, the Obama-Xi Summit collected very little attention as the Pope and the resignation of John Boehner took over the headlines. Naturally, Xi scored better in China. At the same time, Xi is very exposed. He’s favored by the ‘rank and file,’ and uses national credentials effectively. Other countries think approvingly of him as well, but he’s quickly becoming a global leader along with all its implications.
Chinese President Xi (3rd Left) toasts with high-ranking Chinese officials at a dinner marking the 64th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China at the Great Hall of the People on September 30, 2013 in Beijing, China (Getty)
The Good the Bad, and the Vague
China rarely admits any responsibility, so when solid progress toward reconciling commercial cyber threats took shape the Obama Administration was elated. Finally, a deal was made, yet a shadow of doubt always remains, ‘trust but verify.’ As of last week, China clamped down on the attacks, proclaiming it would make public statements and prosecute if evidence was presented.
What’s more, there are broader talks on global economic-governance issues. While China has been more willing to recognize benefits of the Bretton Woods System, the US has supported China in gaining a stronger voice in the International Monetary Fund.
Unfortunately, an agreement on No First Use (Mutual Non-Targeting of Critical Infrastructures), which many US officials thought was guaranteed, did not come to fruition. In addition, nothing was mentioned on the topic of maritime security, according to a White House fact sheet. Both of these issues prove US-China relations still have deep divisions.
President Obama and China’s Xi Jinping shake hands at the end of their news conference in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing November 12, 2014, (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The summit showed the US what President Xi was willing to compromise, like cyber security, and what he wouldn’t give in to, territory, activities in the South China Sea, and human rights issues. China is a real fact for the US. At the same time, the US has a strong presence in Asia and will continue to monitor the area with interest. Both countries are going to face more and more conflict; whether it’s security, military, business, attitudes and activities, every sector will be affected.
Ultimately, the visit was a major success. If it wasn’t evident before, it’s now apparent there is a reordering of the global balance as President Xi’s style of politics aids China’s rise.