Michael Green served on the US National Security Council staff from 2001-2005 and is now Senior Vice President for Asia at CSIS and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.
The pundits gave a variety of bad advice to President Obama going into the Sunnylands Summit with Xi Jinping. One prominent commentator from Down Under said it was the 'last, best chance' for the US and China to reach a grand strategic bargain and avoid war, a prognosis echoed by some American China-hands and feared by observers from Tokyo to New Delhi.
In fact, the White House played the summit just about right. In background briefings before the meeting, senior officials downplayed expectations that there would be 'breakthroughs' on any of the problems vexing US-China relations and instead emphasised that the summit was focused on creating a chemistry between Obama and Xi that would pave the way for more confidence-building and productive problem-solving down the road.
For an old Bush guy like me, this was quite interesting. For one thing, Bill Clinton and the two Bushes were much better at building personal chemistry with foreign leaders than Barack Obama, who is famous for his lawyerly, transactional, and often cool meetings with foreign heads of state.
The relaxed setting and 'walk in the woods' dynamic achieved at Sunnylands was exactly what we had wanted to do with Hu Jintao during the Bush years. The problem was that Hu was just not comfortable being comfortable in front of the media. For Hu's staff, the summits were all about the pageantry, flags and protocol and ensuring that the Chinese public saw Hu get whatever Jiang Zemin got in his summits (hence endless negotiations over the 19-gun salute etc).
Xi is obviously more confident in his own skin and better at playing his own media than Hu was. Given how much of the US-China relationship hangs on the personal trust between the two nations' leaders, this informal and extended dynamic was precisely what was needed.
I was also struck by the change in President Obama's description of US-China relations. From the beginning of the Bush Administration we characterised the relationship with Beijing as one that should be cooperative, constructive and candid. The Obama team dropped 'candid' and replaced it with 'positive' in describing their framework for relations with China.
After unsuccessfully experimenting with a US-China joint statement in 2009 promising to respect mutual 'core interests', the Obama Administration is now back to the pragmatic declaratory policy towards China of the Bush years. Or as the President put it at Sunnylands, he and Xi were not trying to negotiate 'what's acceptable and what's not' but instead needed a 'candid and constructive conversation and communication' to ensure stronger relations in the future.
Xi was upbeat, but for his part reiterated his theme that the US and China should build a 'new model of great power relationship'. I strongly suspect that Xi has in mind a model of strategic reassurance, respect for core interests, and agreed upon spheres of influence – precisely what Beijing thought it was receiving in the November 2009 joint statement and that President Obama appeared to reject this time.
So well done on the summit, Mr President, but there will be further tests ahead.
Photo courtesy of the White House.