It is too soon to know how history will judge the long-term significance, if any, of the weekend meeting between China’s Xi Jinping and President Obama, or how it will compare with images of previous summits: Stalin beguiling FDR, Khrushchev bullying Kennedy, Mao impressing Nixon, Gorbachev charming first Thatcher, then Reagan.
One thing is clear: the timing of this meeting could hardly have been worse for Obama, whose famous luck twice won him the presidency but now seems to have run out. Originally planned for September, the meeting was hastily rescheduled to address worsening U.S.-China relations. It was announced in late April just as the convergence of multiple administration scandals and failed policies weakened Obama politically and put him on the moral defensive domestically and internationally.
Xi and his colleagues probably see the Benghazi, Internal Revenue Service, Justice Department and domestic surveillance imbroglios as more than a distraction for Washington. Using the government’s power to target political opponents and the media, practices employed less delicately by China’s Communist leaders, has the added advantage of taking American leaders down a peg from their posture of moral superiority. That may be why there was not a public word spoken about human rights.
Obama needs something that can be seen as an achievement, if not a triumph, in foreign affairs to demonstrate his competence and credibility as president. China’s leaders were already convinced history is on their side before Obama’s troubles burgeoned. Xi, in the honeymoon phase of his own power and popularity, was poised to take full advantage of the American president’s plight. There is little doubt who had the upper hand in their discussions over a range of contentious issues.
To the extent the two leaders “bonded,” it was largely on Xi’s terms, with Obama offering to facilitate Chinese investment in the United States and loosen restrictions on high-tech exports to China, two long-sought goals of Beijing. For his part, Xi promised greater cooperation on reining in North Korea’s nuclear program and addressing cyber-espionage, assurances that Washington has heard before. As always with China’s promises, the proof will be in the pudding.
Xi had probably perceived before the meeting that despite the usual American rhetoric, he and Obama actually share similar views on some important international issues.
When the Arab Spring moved to Libya, Beijing, disturbed at the precedents of people power deposing entrenched dictators, hewed to its traditional position of non-interference in internal affairs. It blocked French- and British-sponsored Security Council resolutions condemning Muammar Qaddafi. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the Chinese position as “despicable” and UN ambassador Susan Rice called it “disgusting.”
But the president himself was sending a different message of U.S. noninvolvement, one that initially was closer to the Chinese position. When he finally yielded to pressure from Paris and London to lend air support to the anti-Qaddafi forces, he strictly constrained the scope and duration of the U.S. mission. His aides called it “leading from behind.” Beijing may have seen it as war-weariness, timidity, and moral indifference to a humanitarian catastrophe.
Even after Qaddafi was long gone and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi came under a sustained terrorist attack last September 11th, the Obama administration rejected a military response.
Much the same pattern is playing out on Syria, where Washington’s allies have urged U.S. involvement in the two-year effort to oust Bashar al-Assad. As the death toll exceeded eighty thousand, more than a million refugees fled into Jordan and Turkey, and Assad blatantly crossed Obama’s chemical weapons “red line,” the U.S. president repeated his call for Assad to leave, but refused to authorize any significant military intervention or arms support to hasten that result.
There is almost Orwellian irony in Obama’s naming Rwandan genocide author Samantha Powers as his United Nations ambassador even as Syria has been called “Obama’s Rwanda.” Meanwhile, China opposes one Security Council resolution after another denouncing the Syrian dictator. Obama told Syria and the world that “I don’t bluff,” but having seen Assad successfully call the U.S. president’s hand, Beijing may come to a different conclusion as it implements its expansionist strategy in the South and East China Seas. U.S. financial constraints such as the sequester intensify regional concerns—and Chinese hopes—that the United States will lack the will and the resources to sustain the pivot to Asia.
It did not help convey seriousness about the new implications of China’s rise when Obama greeted Xi by repeating the mantra of his predecessors in the White House: “It is in the U.S. interest that China continues on the path of success, because . . . a peaceful and stable and prosperous China is . . . good for the world.”
Xi was happy to accommodate the U.S. president’s benign description of China’s emergence: “The China Dream is about cooperation, development, peace, and win-win, and it is connected to the American Dream and the beautiful dreams people in other countries may have.”
He used somewhat different language when he visited a series of Chinese military facilities shortly after taking office. He made it clear then that China’s rising military power would be a prominent part of the China dream, and he repeatedly urged his military units to be ready for “real combat” and “fighting and winning wars.” Presumably, President Obama mentioned that contrast in tone during their private conversations.
Taking the American president’s domestic problems and international hesitation into account, Xi may well have found reason to reach the same conclusion about him that Margaret Thatcher famously did regarding Gorbachev: “I like Mr. [Obama]. We can do business together.” Americans will judge whether the summit in the desert helped assure them that it will be in a good way.
Joseph A. Bosco served as China country director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2005-2006, and is presently a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest .