Obama's bid for new China ties can't quell tension
Beijing: When Xi Jinping took the reins of a booming China two years ago, US 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.
Xi has consolidated power since taking office, 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.
The leaders planned a morning of meetings at the Great Hall before they were to take questions from reporters, a surprising last-minute addition to the schedule given China's tight media controls.
As he met with Xi for a private dinner the night before, Obama declared he wanted to take U.S.-China relations to a "new level." The dinner stretched on for five hours — two hours longer than scheduled — and White House officials called it "very worthwhile and a useful."
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. The two countries 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.
U.S. officials said the two leaders were also likely to announce progress on deals to avert military confrontations in Pacific, where their aircrafts have come into close contact. Officials have also been working on possible announcements on climate change to set the stage for a summit in Paris early next year. The U.S. has been pressing China to set an ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and Beijing appears to be getting serious about the problem. That's a shift for China, which in previous years argued that developed countries like the U.S. bore most of the responsibility to deal with climate change.
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.
Despite efforts to find consensus, White House officials insisted Obama would take a tough line with Xi on issues like cybersecurity and Beijing's military actions in the South and East China Seas that have put neighbors on edge.
"There's no mystery in our position on these issues, there's no mystery on the Chinese position," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser. "When there's an opening, we take it, and we run through that opening, we work together. And when there's a difference, we're just going to keep raising it repeatedly with China."