Xi and Obama: Same Meeting, Different Stories

Blog | September 26, 2016


After Obama and Xi meet, their governments tell different stories

When top U.S. and Chinese leaders meet, there is always a gap between the ways the two governments describe the meeting’s content and outcomes in public. Each will naturally craft its narrative to speak to the home audience. When President Barack Obama made his last visit to China this month, some tried and true gaps remained. Chinese government releases, for instance, continued to emphasize the “new model of major-country relations between China and the U.S.,” while the White House sang its own greatest hits of “manag[ing] differences constructively and expand[ing] practical cooperation in regional and global standards” and Obama himself winked at the Chinese phrase without adopting it wholesale.

Deep in the U.S. “fact sheets” and Chinese “outcome list,” however, one can observe more substantive differences of emphasis and priority. Since the content and language in those documents is in many ways approximately parallel, a close read reveals instances where one government wants to make a point that the other doesn’t. Here are three differences worth noting from earlier this month:

‘Commitments’ vs ‘consensus’ on cyberspace and commercial hacking

Both the main U.S. “fact sheet” and the Chinese “outcome list” reference the parallel statements on cyberspace issues made by Obama and President Xi Jinping during Xi’s state visit to Washington in September 2015 and note the two new dialogue channels established at that time. The U.S. text, however, pointedly calls the presidents’ statements “cyber commitments,” and elaborates, that they include “combating malicious cyber activity and hacking, and not conducting or knowingly supporting cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property for commercial gain.”

The Chinese text refers instead to a “consensus” (共识 in the Chinese-language version) instead of a “commitment”—no mere translation hiccup, since the Chinese document uses the word “commit” or “commitment” (承诺) dozens of times. The Chinese document also emphasizes “common interests and responsibilities in cyberspace,” while omitting the hot-button U.S. issue of commercial espionage.

The differences continue: The U.S. document reports the two governments “affirmed the development of a ‘scorecard’” for cases to be reviewed by officials at upcoming meetings and named several specific categories of cybersecurity concerns—none mentioned in the parallel Chinese paragraph. The Chinese document meanwhile mentioned a forum on technology and violent terrorism to be held in October, something the U.S. fact sheet omits. While cyberspace policy dialogue appears more robust than a year ago, differences clearly remain.

Counterterrorism and the home audience

The U.S. and Chinese governments both expressed an intent to share more information on terrorism suspects. There is significant tension, however, in how the two documents characterize their relationship in a UN Security Council committee that designates terrorist entities. The U.S. version is vague, saying both governments “reaffirmed their commitment to communicate and cooperate…to designate terrorist entities” in the UN process. The Chinese version more concretely notes “appreciation that the U.S. designated the East Turkistan Islamic Movement [ETIM] under the U.S. Executive Order 13224 and supported its listing” in the UN process. Only the Chinese version mentions two upcoming counterterror meetings: a vice-ministerial “China-U.S. Counterterrorism Consultation” and a workshop on improvised explosive devices.

What to make of these differences? Counterterrorism is a highly sensitive issue for U.S.-China cooperation. The two governments share concerns about potential attacks within their borders and against their interests abroad, but counterterrorism cooperation has sometimes been stilted over factors including differing views on the nature of the threat. The Chinese reference to ETIM allows the statement to praise U.S. recognition of a Chinese government concern, but the U.S. government designation of ETIM as a terrorist group dates back to 2002, when Obama was an Illinois State Senator. Today, ETIM is no longer considered an active entity by many U.S. terrorism experts. Chinese officials appear more eager to highlight bilateral counterterror cooperation, and the dated reference raises the question of remaining differences between the two governments.

Missing from the laundry list

In several areas, the Chinese document simply “goes there” while the U.S. documents do not. In these areas, the most visible discrepancy is one of emphasis. U.S. officials may be just as committed to these efforts as their counterparts, but they chose not to feature them. Given the number of topics, however, it seems unlikely they were all really discussed in a short bilateral meeting. Including them may allow Chinese officials to signal continued support from top leaders for ongoing bilateral processes that take place lower in the bureaucracy.

Among the topics missing from the U.S. laundry list but given their due in Beijing:

  • People-to-people exchanges, including bilateral meetings on tourism, a China Garden Project slated for groundbreaking in Washington before the end of October, and Chinese arts exhibitions (including a Qin and Han Dynasty show at the Met in New York early next year);
  • Extra details on sub-national cooperation between regional and local governments;
  • Interaction in the Asia-Pacific, with the Chinese document saying “the two sides emphasized that China and the United States are both major countries in the Asia-Pacific region.”
  • A joint commitment to resolve the crisis in Syria and coordination on South Sudan (though they did include identical language on Iraq); and
  • A special note that “the two sides reiterated their support for the United Nations playing an important role in international affairs” (in addition to identical language on “multilateral institutions” and global development).

Reading between the sides

It was obvious that the intended headline both governments sought to project from this meeting was the continuation of bilateral cooperation on the global climate process, and the two presidents had a well-covered event with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to officially join the Paris agreement. A close read of the two sides’ diplomatic messaging reveals what else they want to broadcast to smaller audiences of specialists policymakers. Deeper in the documents lie areas where perfect harmony between the parallel statements was never achieved and, therefore, where observers can watch for movement next time: Obama and Xi have one more likely chance to meet, at the APEC summit in Peru in November.


Graham Webster (@gwbstr) is a senior fellow, U.S.–China relations, of the Paul Tsai China Center and a lecturer at Yale Law School. Sign up for his free e-mail brief, U.S.–China Week.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.​