Previewing the Obama-Xi Exchange

Commentary | June 05, 2013

Presidents Obama and Xi will meet on June 7-8 in southern California for a “short-sleeves” summit, where casual yet critical discussion will take place. EWI Fellow Kevin Ching summarizes key issues of this historic meeting.

On June 7-8, President Obama will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at a desert retreat in southern California. In what is touted as a “shirt-sleeves” summit, the informal meeting will dispense with the pomp and circumstance usually reserved for a state visit in favor of relaxed, less scripted discussions. The summit will be Xi’s first visit to the U.S. since assuming the triumvirate of posts at the apogee of China’s leadership: general-secretary of the Communist Party, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and head of state.

By design, the visit will lack a rigid agenda. However, there are several areas of common interest that the two presidents should explore during the visit. First and foremost, Beijing appears to be more inclined to engage in meaningful discussions on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. China recently ratcheted up pressure on North Korea and increasingly acknowledges the harm that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs present for China’s strategic interests. China has also expressed an interest in participation in negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that many in China previously felt was designed to exclude Beijing.

A more contentious issue that Obama will likely bring up is that of cybersecurity and the theft of intellectual property. Last month, the U.S. Defense Department released a report that accused Chinese hackers of accessing data from over two dozen weapons systems. The report comes on the heels of an earlier report by a U.S. security firm that exposed a specialized unit within the People’s Liberation Army that had penetrated the networks of over a hundred companies.

President Xi, on the other hand, will undoubtedly focus on the U.S. rebalancing efforts in Asia and the maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas. Competing claims between China and at least six other countries in the region over scattered islands and their resources have created an ominous flashpoint. Although the U.S. has no territorial claims in the region, Beijing likens U.S. defense commitments as a threatening containment strategy directed against China.

Given the informality of the visit, few expect the discussions to yield a joint statement or other major policy announcement. However, both the Obama and Xi administrations view the summit as an opportunity for the two leaders to develop a personal rapport and gain a better understanding of each other’s positions and intentions. The relaxed setting will allow Presidents Obama and Xi to move beyond scripted talking points and exchange views on the difficult strategic issues that challenge the bilateral relationship.

Though it would be imprudent to expect Obama and Xi to become the best of friends, the two leaders would be wise to utilize the visit to assuage some of the doubts and ambiguities that the other may have. President Obama should explain America’s strategy and goals within the context of the Asia-Pacific rebalance. Likewise, President Xi must flesh out the “new-type great-power relationship” that his administration calls for between the U.S. and China. During two days of discussions without suits and ties, Obama and Xi will have the opportunity to accomplish just that.