On Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet President Obama; it will be their first meeting as heads of state. The United States and China are the world’s two most important countries, and that alone makes this meeting very important. But this meeting has extra significance for a number of reasons, and it could become a moment that transforms U.S.-China relations. Here are some important points why:
1. The type of meeting. This is not a typical head of state visit that will follow the usual semi-scripted formalized meetings in the Oval office. Instead, President Obama and President Xi Jinping will spend two days at the Annenberg Retreat in Rancho Mirage, California. Far away from the intense pressure and scrutiny of Washington, D.C., the two leaders and their teams will retreat to Californian country seeking opportunity to genuinely connect.
2. A historic moment. This form of diplomacy, with six or eight hours of daily talks, is a historic format for U.S.-China diplomacy, not seen since the now famous meeting between Nixon and Mao in 1972. Since then relations have gone through many changes, but meetings between presidents of have been too short and formal for leaders to make a genuine impression on each other. President Xi is a far more internationally confident president that his predecessor President Hu, who did not have any relationship of note with Obama.
3. The timing. The travel plans of Beijing’s head of state are part of a very important diplomatic strategy. Former President Hu didn’t visit the United States until three years after he took office, before him President Jiang took four years. President Xi is meeting President Obama within his first 100 days of office. Chinese diplomacy is becoming more assertive and credit is due to both parties for agreeing to this type of a meeting.
4. The agenda. Rather than come into this meeting with an agenda, what gets discussed in California will most likely set the agenda for U.S.-China relations for the next five years. U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was in Beijing earlier this week preparing for the meeting and he noted President Xi’s comfort to meet without sticking to notes. Views on broad geo-political trends and worldviews will most likely be exchanged as President Obama and President Xi attempt to give the bilateral relationship renewed vigor. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang, “President Xi Jinping and President Obama will have an extensive and in-depth exchange of views on bilateral relations as well as international and regional issues of common interest.” Talks will likely revolve around topics such as trade — a mooted U.S.-China Free Trade agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP); the U.S. pivot to Asia — what it means for China’s disputes in the East and South China sea, U.S.-Japan-China triangular relations and dealing with an increasingly belligerent North Korea; security threats, specifically the invisible threat of hacking; and perhaps more hopefully breaking the climate change political gridlock.
This meeting reflects the maturity of the relationship between the two countries. This maturity is thanks to an effort from both sides to greater institutionalize bilateral diplomacy e.g. the annual U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue. Every year key figures from both governments meet at the G20 or International Governmental Organizations such as the UN, WTO etc. In California the two leaders have the chance to re-assure each other, identify points of congruence and points of divergence, and create a system that reduces the potential for conflict in the form of a trade war or cyber warfare. Obama will want to ask Xi what he expects to achieve with the economic reforms. Xi will want to ask Obama whether Washington will achieve a budget deal and begin trimming down its deficit. We should not expect too much from the talks, but as Susan Shirk rightly commentated: “The goal of the encounter is to establish the personal relationship between the two leaders and explore ways to dispel — or at least better manage — the mutual suspicions that have recently been dragging down the relationship."