Sunnylands: the serious side to a casual chat

Sunnylands powwow a first step to building the special relationship that Washington and Beijing need for tackling global problems

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 3:47am

When it came to summit meetings with American presidents in the past, Chinese leaders cared about the pomp and protocol more than anything else.

Any deal or breakthrough and what was to be said during the summits were agreed long beforehand.

All that was left to worry about were the photo opportunities, the 21-gun salute, and the grand dinner at the White House, beamed back on national television to the domestic audience.

That is why it is interesting to note that President Xi Jinping agreed to the two-day informal meeting with Barack Obama at the Sunnylands Estate in southern California.

The informal setting has seen the leaders of the world's largest economies spend more than eight hours spread over two meetings, one dinner, and a photo opportunity while they strolled the grounds, developing a rapport amid several high-stake issues.

Although there is little evidence of concrete progress on issues ranging from cybersecurity to intellectual property rights, both sides have used big words while heaping praise.

US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon described the summit as "unique, positive, and constructive", while State Councillor Yang Jiechi said the meetings were "strategic, constructive and historic".

Are the meetings as important as those superlatives have indicated? Simply put, they are, particularly from the Chinese perspective.

The American side reportedly proposed the summit after learning of Xi's visit to Latin America and Chinese officials were happy to oblige, grabbing the opportunity to meet much earlier than scheduled.

Despite Chinese leaders' penchant for pomp and grandeur, such an informal setting is better suited for them as they are under no time pressure to produce "breakthroughs" while having ample opportunity to discuss guidelines and principles driving ties forward.

It is similar to the annual Beidaihe meetings in the summer resort where leaders meet in a relaxed and informal setting to discuss and set the tone on major domestic issues.

Xi was keen to use the meeting to seek a new model for a major power relationship with the United States which, as he put it, could be "different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between major powers in the past".

From the Chinese perspective, the Sunnylands talks bear some resemblance to the trail-blazing meeting 41 years ago when Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai met Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to discuss the guidelines and principles that restored bilateral ties.

While both sides still need time to figure out their "new model" of relations, the latest meeting, to a certain degree, marks the first noticeable step towards building an informal special relationship between the two countries known as the G2, whereby Washington and Beijing can work together to tackle global problems.

When this concept was first raised several years ago, Beijing, though pleased inwardly, was very reluctant to endorse the concept publicly as its foreign policy has long been guided by the doctrine of Deng Xiaoping of hiding one's capabilities and biding one's time.

But Xi and other new Chinese leaders now realise the mainland needs to step up and play a more important role in world affairs, particularly engaging Washington more, not the least because of its military pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region.

During Xi's 10-year reign, the mainland is likely to overtake the United States to be the world's largest economy in terms of gross domestic product, which would propel Beijing further to the centre of the international stage.

But even if that happens, the mainland will still be no match for the military and economic power of the United States in terms of gross domestic product per capita and technological advances.

The last thing the Chinese leaders want to see is another cold war developing with the United States just as the country is on the rise.

That means even if the G2 scenario is shaping up, Beijing will most likely remain the lesser half on the global stage as its priority will still be focusing on expanding the economy.