The single biggest stakeholder in the outcome of the China-United States weekend summit in California was not Japan, but North Korea. It is more than a coincidence that Pyongyang agreed to hold a meeting with Seoul the day after presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping wrapped up their talks.
The North Koreans saw the writing on the wall when an exuberant Obama described his talks as «terrific» and Xi’s foreign policy advisor Yang Jiechi summed up that the two presidents «blazed a new trail» in the California desert that could be called «strategic, constructive and historic».
Yang’s comments are important because he is not a professional politician and is trained to measure words by coffee spoons. Even Yang got carried away momentarily. He said, «The two presidents agreed to build a new model of major country relationship between China and the United States based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation. We have to stay each other’s partners, not rivals».
The summit was rich in symbolism, as an American and Chinese leader never before got together in an informal setting and clocked eight hours of talks, had a private dinner cooked by a celebrity chef, and took a 50-minute walk with only their translators. That the summit took place at Obama’s instance hardly three months into Xi’s presidency is extraordinary.
But having said that, amidst the outpouring of polite phrases, it is difficult to quantify what has been accomplished at the summit. The US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said the talks were «positive and constructive, wide-ranging and quite successful in achieving the goals that we set forth for this meeting». As Yang put it, the discussions were «unprecedented in length, breadth and depth» and have resulted in «charting a blueprint for the future growth of US-China relations. They [Xi and Obama] talked about cooperation and did not shy away from differences. They pursued an in depth and candid dialogue, though not necessarily an all-encompassing one».
One tangible outcome could be on North Korea. Washington and Beijing sense they could be on the same page on how to contain a nuclear North Korea. Both leaders «agreed that North Korea has to denuclearize, that neither country will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and that we would work together to deepen cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization,» Donilon told reporters.
And Yang concurred – «The Chinese side is ready to continue to make an unremitting effort toward those goals [denuclearization of North Korea]. The pressing need now is to resume the talks as soon as possible».
Over the weekend, the North Korean and South Korean officials held their first government-level talks in many years. Obama can look back with certain sense of accomplishment in persuading Beijing to apply the sort of pressure on Pyongyang that might be proving effective in compelling the latter to give up vacuous rhetoric, see the light of reason and broach with the South Koreans the subject of reopening the economic zone at Kaesong.
The understanding that Obama may have forged with Xi on North Korea comes after six decades since the Korean War ended. Donilon said, «I think the bottom line is I think we have quite a bit of alignment on the Korean issue».
But, on the other hand, Donilon unilaterally set a benchmark, whereas all that Yang said was that «China and the U.S. have the same goal in terms of their principal and overall objectives on the Korean peninsula. The pressing need right now is to resume dialogue as soon as possible. China is ready to maintain close dialogue and cooperation with the U.S. in this respect».
China’s stance fundamentally continues to be the same, namely, that the nuclear issue should be resolved through the six-party talks and this requires more all-round engagement and interactions with North Korea.
Again, on the issue of cyber security, Donilon insisted that progress has been made. As he put it, Obama «asked that the Chinese government engage on this issue and understand that if it's not addressed, if it continues to be this direct theft of United States property, that this was going to be a very difficult problem in the economic relationship and was going to be an inhibitor to the relationship really reaching its full potential». Donilon claimed that Xi acknowledged the US concerns and agreed to look into the specific cases Obama cited.
But Yang had an altogether different take: «On cyber security both [countries] have similar challenges. It should not become [the] root cause of mutual suspicion between our two countries, rather it should be a bright spot in our cooperation». Simply put, Yang is only going so far as to admit there is a mutual problem that both sides face and China would be willing to sit down, discuss and figure out what is essentially unchartered waters.
To be sure, the US’s allies in the Asia-Pacific region will wonder whether Obama took up the issue of China’s claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea or Japan’s control of what Beijing calls the Diaoyu and what Tokyo says are the Senkakus. The latter is particularly important since the Obama administration has pledged to defend the Senkakus under the provisions of the US-Japan security treaty. Nothing emerged from the summit in California with Obama merely touching on the need for «protocols» on «military issues».
Of course, it is wrong to look for deliverables from such a summit and it should not be a surprise that the one specific agreement to emerge from the summit turned out to be the commitment by China to work with the US to limit the production of greenhouse gases.
The Chinese side portrays that the summit was about crafting a «new type of great power relationship». However, in the seasoned eyes of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the summit was a «successful reaffirmation of a special relationship» and «one of the more important ones [summits] in the modern American-Chinese history».
Brzezinski was conspicuously circumspect in estimating that the summit was held in «a thoroughly business-like fashion and with a constructive effect» and looking ahead, he felt he has increased confidence that «both sides will make a serious effort to find compromise formulations because they are both aware of the importance of the relationship to their own long-term interests».
Brzezinski sees the potential for a start of a process of strategic rapprochement between the US and China, but then, he also adds a caveat, «We have to learn how to live with differences, perhaps even with some occasional tensions in the relationship, but always be guided by the realization that if the relationship becomes sour, it will be mutually damaging».
While China may be keen on a paradigm shift, the US mindset still seems hooked to a transactional partnership. If it was North Korea till yesterday, from today it is going to be about «cybersecurity». The big question is whether the US can ever bring itself around to accepting an «equal» partnership – not only with China but with any country, allies and foes alike.
In Obamaspeak, «terrific» is a fairly common expression. One will have to wait till next month for the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting in Washington on July 8-12 before drawing a line on the California summit.
Interestingly, Obama’s last executive decision as he set out for California was to announce Samantha Power’s nomination to the cabinet post of the US’s envoy to the United Nations, replacing Susan Rice who has been appointed as successor to Donilon. Both Power and Rice are votaries of the US’ exceptionalism and are robust advocates of humanitarian intervention. They made quite a team together with the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who has been the target of some savage attack by the Chinese media for crafting the US’ «pivot to Asia».
Obama’s induction of Power and Rice into his foreign policy team couldn’t have gone unnoticed in Beijing. Yang reflected at his briefing in California, «We have to respect the social systems and path to development chosen by the other side… We need to seek common ground while shelving the differences». The new type of relationship also means learning to live with the old type.