Interview with Piin-Fen Kok on the Obama-Xi Summit

News | September 22, 2015

EWI interns Ambika Kaushik and Vano Benidze sat down with Piin-Fen Kok, director of EWI’s China, East Asia and United States program, ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s week-long visit to the United States. The visit marks Xi’s first state visit to the U.S. in his capacity as president.

What will be the main points of discussion during President  Xi’s visit to the U.S.?

There are three components to President Xi Jinping's visit. First, he will be in Seattle, meeting with U.S. tech companies at the U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum, so of course there will be a lot of talk about cybersecurity. The U.S. firms will surely be seeking to raise their concerns about new Chinese legislation and regulations that restrict the way they can operate in China. 

I expect that the Chinese will in turn seek some assurance from the companies that they will comply with those legislations and regulations when doing business in China. The Chinese will also likely try to see if there is a way to win the companies over and prevent the Obama administration from going ahead with sanctions against Chinese hackers. 

The next stop will be Washington, D.C., where President Xi will meet with President Obama as well as other senior leaders from both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government. I think the issues discussed in DC will primarily be political and national security issues, including, again, cyber, maritime tensions, and in light of the upcoming UN summit in December—climate change. Perhaps with its upcoming presidential election in early 2016, Taiwan will be a point of discussion as well.  

They will also have a good deal of discussion on China’s economy and what’s happening there with the stock market and currency devaluation etc., as well as try to achieve more progress on the U.S.-China bilateral investment treaty. 

The last stop will be New York. It will be Xi’s first attendance at the UN General Assembly session in his position as president. While in New York, we expect him to articulate China’s vision of the world and what kind of role he sees China playing in fulfilling that vision.  

What is the public opinion in the U.S. regarding the visit?

I think the American public will view this visit in the context of three factors. First, there is considerable negative public opinion of China these dayswhether you are talking about economic competition and China “stealing U.S. jobs,” or acts such as hacking, stealing intellectual property, manipulating the economy, currency and other trade practices, or increased assertiveness in foreign affairs, such as what we are currently seeing in the South China Sea. 

There is also a lot of concern about the tightening of political controls in China—the Chinese government’s clamping down on human rights, freedom of the Internet, freedom of speech, and trying to control the ability of foreign NGOs to operate in China as well. And indeed, we do see some of those negative opinions being manifested in the discourse among U.S. Presidential candidates. 

The second context would be that there has been a lot of bad economic news coming out of China recently. I think Americans would like to hear from President Xi and other Chinese officials so that they can make sense about what exactly is happening in China, with its economy, where it’s headed, and what possible effects it may have on the U.S. economy and U.S. investors doing business in China. 

Finally, the third area would be that Americans want to have a better idea of who Xi Jinping is, beyond this idea of “the strongest leader since Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping”-- of a country that’s communist, but also the second largest economy in the world. But I think what all this means is that the Obama administration needs to find a balance between advancing its common interests with China and trying to come up with some tangible positive outcomes, but also, at the same time, being able to take a firm position on many of these issues of concern.

 Xi Jinping needs to find that balance as well, as it is a period of vulnerability for China, its economy, politics and leadership. Questions have been arising about whether Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders are equipped to deal with the many problems that are festering at home. During this visit, he needs to be seen by the Chinese people as a strong leader abroad--whether it’s in Washington or at the UN--advancing China’s interests and vision. At the same time, he needs to reassure the U.S. and the rest of the world that he and the Communist Party of China leadership have things under control at home, especially on the economic front.  

What role do you see the South China Sea and cybersecurity playing in the discussions?

These two topics will play a very important role in the discussions. This upcoming summit between President Obama and President Xi will be a great opportunity for the two presidents to sit down and address in a very serious and honest way their mutual concerns not only about those two issues but also regarding the other sources of tension in the bilateral relationship.  

This will also be a great opportunity for the leaders to go beyond specific problems and to clarify their respective strategic thinking behind the actions they are taking, not only regionally but also globally. 

The last presidential summit saw progress in areas such as climate change. Do you foresee any positive outcomes from this visit?

The last summit, held in Beijing in November 2014, produced several significant, tangible and groundbreaking agreements not only on climate change but also with regards to visas, tariffs on high-tech goods and military confidence-building measures. That set a high bar for the upcoming presidential summit. While it is going to be a challenge to match the level of cooperation of the previous year’s meeting in light of all the negativity surrounding current U.S.-China relations, both parties will try to produce some positive and specific outcomes this year. 

We are seeing reports over the last couple of days on a possible agreement to limit cyber attacks against critical infrastructure. I think both sides will also be seeking to build on the military confidence-building measures reached last year. Leaders of both countries will want to announce progress on the bilateral investment treaty and possibly on climate change, in order to pave the way for more constructive and productive talks in Paris at the end of the year. 

All this aside, observers and domestic constituents of both countries will also expect some progress onor at least a concerted effort to addressthe contentious issues as well, such as cybersecurity and the South China Sea. I think, especially in America, people will not deem this meeting a success if those concerns are swept under the rug simply because the leaders wanted something positive to come out of it.