Obama’s Bid for New China Ties Can’t Quell Tension
By Julie Pace 12 November 2014
BEIJING — When Xi Jinping took the reins of a booming China two years ago, President Barack Obama saw an opportunity to remake America’s relationship with the Asian power. But even after Obama’s unusually robust efforts to forge personal ties with Xi, the two leaders are meeting in Beijing amid significant tensions, both old and new.
While Obama and Xi tackled sensitive matters like cybersecurity and human rights privately, they sought to accentuate areas of agreement in their public remarks. The countries jointly announced new goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, signaling that the world’s largest economies were united in the need to tackle climate change. U.S. officials said the two leaders were also likely to announce progress on deals to avert military confrontations in Pacific, where their aircraft have come into close contact.
As Obama and Xi opened talks Wednesday, the U.S. president said cooperation between their nations “can make important contributions to security and progress in the region and around the world.”
Since assuming the presidency in 2012, Xi has consolidated power, deepened China’s provocative maritime disputes with its neighbors and stands accused of continuing cyberattacks against the United States. U.S. officials have new concerns over the potential for a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and are warily watching Beijing strengthen ties with Moscow as the West distances itself from Russia.
For its part, Beijing remains skeptical of Obama’s intentions in Asia, seeing his efforts to bolster U.S. economic ties in the region as a way of countering China’s rise. Obama’s domestic political weakness, particularly following the Democrats’ defeats in last week’s midterm elections, has also sparked questions in China about whether the U.S. president can deliver on potential international agreements.
Arriving on Wednesday at the Great Hall of the People, Obama walked with Xi to a platform in the center of the room, where a military band played the U.S. and Chinese national anthems and the two leaders inspected an honor guard lined up against a massive mural of the Great Wall. A group of waiting schoolchildren bearing flags from both countries and flowers cheered for the leaders when given their cue.
After their morning meetings, the leaders were to take questions from reporters, a surprising last-minute addition to the schedule given China’s tight media controls.
In the lead-up to the Obama-Xi meetings, U.S. officials sought to refocus attention on areas of U.S. agreement with the Chinese, including a climate pact that was the result of months of secret discussions between the two countries.
As part of the new agreement, Obama announced that the U.S. would move much faster in cutting pollution, with a goal to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. Xi, whose country’s emissions are still growing as it builds new coal plants, didn’t commit to cut emissions by a specific amount. Rather, he set a target for China’s emissions to peak by 2030, or earlier if possible.
The U.S. and China also announced a reciprocal accord to extend visa lengths for their citizens. And Obama announced that the U.S. and China had reached an understanding that would allow negotiations to move forward on a deal with the World Trade Organization to reduce tariffs on high-tech goods.
But despite the White House’s public focus on cooperation, analysts say Xi’s approach to running China is likely to lead to more tensions ahead.
“I think that consensus is growing that there’s going to be more viscosity, more tension with China over the next few years,” said Michael Green, an Asia analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He added that Xi has proved to be “less accommodating” and “tougher than expected” in his dealings with the U.S.
That’s hardly the landscape Obama envisioned when he began trying to cultivate Xi as partner. Obama had developed little personal rapport with Xi’s predecessor, the older and more formal Hu Jintao. But in Xi, U.S. officials saw a potentially new kind of leader, with closer ties to the U.S. than other Chinese officials—he spent time in Iowa as an exchange student—and an ease with public appearances that eluded Hu.
In an unusual move, Obama last summer invited Xi to a two-day retreat at Sunnylands, a sweeping estate in the southern California desert. Away from the glare of their capitals, the leaders held eight hours of wide-ranging talks, toasted each other with Chinese liquor and sealed their new relationship with a 50-minute stroll through the manicured grounds.
Both sides considered the summit a success. Yet the months that followed have seen increased tensions, from the U.S. levying cyberspying charges against five Chinese officials to a recent series of close calls between U.S. and Chinese aircraft in the Pacific.
Xi is still reciprocating Obama’s California hospitality with a state visit in the Chinese capital. Following meetings Tuesday with regional leaders at an Asia-Pacific economic summit, Obama and Xi met for a private dinner at Zhong Nan Hai, the imperial gardens near Tiananmen Square that serve as the center of power for China’s government and the Communist Party of China. In the spirit of the Sunnylands summit, the two men ditched their ties for dinner as they sought to project a more casual and comfortable atmosphere.