High Hopes, Low Expectations: Xi and Obama

When people don’t know what else to say, they typically throw words around like “comprehensive,” “cooperation” and “mutual” to make their hollow comments look more appealing. My thoughts on the weekend meeting in California between Chinese President Xi Jingping and President Barack Obama will contain none of these words.

The Chinese are coming to California. But although I agree with former National Security Advisor Zbignew Brezkinski when he referred to the American-Chinese relationship in an interview with Xinhua  as  “the most important bilateral relationship of the world,”  my expectations for this meeting between two of the most important administrations in the world are quite low. However, I still think the summit’s significance cannot be understated.

For one, there will only be about 6 hours of formal meetings over the course of the two day visit in California. There are big expectations for this summit, and I don’t doubt that some of the major issues at stake like cyber-security, the economy, and the U.S. “pivot to Asia” will be on the schedule. However, do decades of mistrust and skepticism go away after a 6 hour-long talk?

As far as we know there is little else planned for the weekend; this means plenty of free time and less scripted talking points that have plagued previous meetings between the leaders in larger summits. In short, this is an opportunity for Obama and Xi to talk to each other, instead of talking at each other. Perhaps the intention of the meeting is just that: to get to know one another over a couple of days of informal R&R; heavens knows they both probably need it! We all know the theory that nation-states and institutions make policy based on their respective national interests. This is true, but it’s more complicated than that. Policy is a constant tug of war, and although the end result is often a combination of national interests, economics, and institutions, in the end it is people that make decisions. Both sets of leaders are investing a great deal in this personal diplomacy that may help clear up misconceptions about the other.

Over the course of my education I can’t say that I have learned a great deal about China, but what I did learn was that the Chinese people favor actions and subtle gestures over words. To them “official” meetings mean nothing, as policy is typically kneaded out informally over a long period of time. I find it so interesting that with all the advances of technology and globalization, this meeting proves that nothing can replace personal contacts between leaders of different countries. Whatever the results of the meeting, we can foresee a better understanding of each other and the countries they represent emerge. Understanding is the first step of better trust. And trust is what is sorely needed in Sino-US relations . 

But regardless of anything “substantial” coming out of the summit, no one can ignore that the symbolic importance of this meeting is akin to Nixon’s visit to China, which eventually led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Like Nixon and Mao before them, Obama and Xi both know that China is here to stay, and they know that in tackling the world’s most pressing issues, two heads are better than one. 

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