The results of the first Obama-Xi summit were nothing dramatic. No treaties were produced, no communiqués were presented. Both leaders appeared together only briefly: for a press conference on the first day and a stroll around the grounds of the California estate on the second day. Nevertheless, the meetings between Obama and Xi may have breathed new life into US-China relations.
Both the US and Chinese delegation emerged from talks optimistic and enthusiastic. Obama described the progress they had made as “constructive” and “terrific.” Xi labelled the meetings “in-depth, sincere and candid.” Later, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon spoke to the press in upbeat and animated spirits.
From the summit, both leaders acknowledged that North Korea must denuclearise. They agreed that the US and China needed to improve military-to-military communications in order to improve US-China relations. Obama and Donilon emphasized that continued intellectual property theft from China would hurt the US-China relationship. Although little to no progress was made on the issue of cyber security, both sides chose not to linger on this contentious topic. Instead, Obama broadly categorized the issue as an international one, saying that they were “not issues that are unique to the US-China relationship.” Xi called cyber-security “a positive area of cooperation between China and the US.”
The one tangible commitment that came out of the two-day summit was an agreement to cooperate on reducing hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. A White House Press release announced that the US and China will use the tools of the Montreal Protocol to lower consumption and production of this greenhouse gas in an attempt to reign in climate change.
The summit certainly displayed the right kind of attitude. A willingness to work together on issues like international security and climate change can strengthen the US-China relationship. President Obama closed his press conference remarks with hope and determination. “What I’m very encouraged about is that both President Xi and myself recognize we have a unique opportunity to take the U.S.-China relationship to a new level. And I am absolutely committed to making sure that we don’t miss that opportunity.”
The question remains, however, if both leaders can carry this attitude over to tough issues like cyber security. Whether or not Obama and Xi will take concrete steps towards building international agreements and legal frameworks to deal with cyber threats remains to be seen.
Only when both leaders manage to take their bilateral relationship beyond positive rhetoric, to the level of actual policy-making, can we begin to speak of a new era in US-China relations.
Written by Yang Fu. Yang is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Photo: US President Barack Obama welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping for their bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7, 2013. From Agence France-Presse/Getty Images