Edward Snowden

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden may put new Obama-Xi relations to the test

US cyber expert Edward Snowden's decision to flee to Hong Kong may be an early test of the burgeoning relationship between Xi and Obama

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 10:22am

US cyber surveillance whistle-blower Edward Snowden's escape to Hong Kong presents an early test of the personal relationship established by the Chinese and American presidents at their informal, two-day summit at the weekend.

Officials from both sides attempted to spin the summit as one in which President Xi Jinping and US counterpart Barack Obama connected during the eight hours of talks they had and relaxed strolls around the California retreat where the summit was held.

It is not known how deep a relationship they forged, with neither side commenting on the talks in that much detail, but both sides will seek to handle Snowden's case delicately to showcase their ability to resolve sensitive issues in a sophisticated manner.

"The two nations will do anything at this moment to avoid another confrontation or a symbolically sensitive case like this one," said Jonathan Holslag, the head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. "Beijing's main interest is to avoid letting this issue [Snowden's case] be perceived as a divisive event between the US and China."

Professor Jia Qingguo , a Peking University international relations specialist, said that with both sides focused on forging rapport and understanding, they would not let the case jeopardise the atmosphere created by the presidents' close personal connection at the summit - which seemed to be one of the few major impacts of the talks - and would handle the latest incident just as they had resolved previous embarrassing cases.

Ties between the two nations became more awkward in February last year when former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun went to the US consulate in Chengdu , reportedly seeking asylum and holding material implicating his former boss, disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai , in various offences. Wang eventually left the consulate voluntarily and was handed over to state security officials. He was later jailed for 15 years on charges including bribery and attempted defection.

Less than two months after Wang's defection bid, the two nations were embroiled in another crisis that threatened to derail a high-level bilateral strategic and economic dialogue when blind Shandong activist Chen Guangcheng fled house arrest and went to the US embassy in Beijing.

The two nations first struck a deal that would have seen Chen remain in China to pursue legal studies. But the embarrassment and tensions rose further when Chen said he had been intimidated into accepting the deal and wanted to go to the US. The high-level dialogue proceeded as planned and Chen was put on a plane to the US a month later.

Clayton Dube, executive director of the University of Southern California's US-China Institute, said the Snowden case could put Washington, Beijing and Hong Kong in awkward positions - depending on the demands the US made on China.

But both nations also had the option of using the case to show co-operation on cybersecurity, he said. "It might mean that the Hong Kong authorities, with the support of the Chinese government, will facilitate American access to this individual," he said. "It is unlikely that any single incident is going to have a profound impact on the relationship."

In an effort to showcase their interpersonal connection, Xi and Obama chatted about sport and how they reduced stress in addition to serious talks. But some observers in China and the US said the encounters were superficial, and the two leaders had merely formed a working relationship, instead of becoming friends.

"I am sure that the two felt more at ease than when Hu Jintao was president, because Hu's robotic personality precluded any feeling of relaxation," said Professor June Teufel Dreyer, a political scientist at the University of Miami. "Moreover, I strongly doubt that any level of 'personal chemistry' Xi and Obama felt would diminish their desire to make the best interests of their respective countries their first, and only, priority."

University of California China watcher Jeffrey Wasserstrom said images from the summit held out hope that the leaders had forged a special relationship. "But we will need to wait for future meetings, I think, to know how much of that is spin and how much of it is more than that," he said.

Professor Pang Zhongying , an international relations specialist at Renmin University, said the personal ties could lead to more bilateral exchanges, such as military exchanges, but the impact of such "informal gatherings" should not be overestimated.

The informal setting had not obscured the formality of arrangements, Pang said, with the two leaders sitting in identical chairs with their national flags behind them, while no deliverable outcomes should be expected from an informal summit.

Timeline of reports on the Snowden affair:

Timeline by Henry Williams, Joanne Lam and AJ Libunao.