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UPDATED: November 30, 2013 NO. 25 JUNE 20, 2013
Setting the Tone
Informal summit bears unique significance for Sino-U.S. relations
By Yu Lintao

SUNNY SUMMIT: Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama attend a joint press conference after their meeting at the Sunnylands retreat in California on June 7 (YAO DAWEI)

If U.S. scholars and officials had any lingering misunderstandings about building a "new type of major power relations" between China and the United States as proposed by China a year ago, they should have been answered at the informal summit of the two countries' leaders at the Sunnylands estate in California in early June. During this unusual personal meeting in the desert resort, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to try to build the new type of bilateral ties based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

After the summit, the U.S. side commented that the meeting was "positive and constructive." Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said during a press briefing that the two presidents "had very good discussions in a uniquely informal atmosphere," adding that their discussions were "wide-ranging and quite successful in achieving the goals that we set forth for this meeting."

Meanwhile, Chinese observers remarked that Xi's first face-to-face meeting with Obama as China's president was a good start for

Sino-U.S. relations after the completion of the latest leadership transitions in both countries. The summit, which set the tone for Sino-U.S. relations over the next four to 10 years, was of strategic significance for bilateral ties and the world at large, they said.

"If we call former U.S. President Richard Nixon's China visit 41 years ago 'the handshake across the Pacific Ocean,' then the Xi-Obama Sunnylands meeting can be seen as 'a strategic dialogue across the Pacific Ocean,'" said Ruan Zongze, Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).

Casual atmosphere

The Xi-Obama meeting was originally scheduled to take place at the G20 Summit in Russia's Saint Petersburg this September.

"In view of the importance of Sino-U.S. relations, the initially scheduled meeting might be a little late," said Qu Xing, President of the CIIS. "China has been very active in diplomatic activities since its new leadership took office in March. Considering President Xi's Russia and Africa trip and Premier Li Keqiang's Asia and Europe trip in recent months, an absence of state-level interaction between China and the United States would seem unusual as the Sino-U.S. ties are presently the most important bilateral relationship."

"Though there have been intensive visits to Beijing by high-ranking U.S. officials in the past several months, they cannot substitute meetings between heads of state. Summit meetings have played a crucial role in the history of Sino-U.S. relations. They usually set the tone for and invigorate bilateral ties," said Tao Wenzhao, a researcher with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Against this backdrop, the summit was scheduled under the invitation of the U.S. Government. Xi and Obama chose to meet informally at Sunnylands, a 200-acre (81-hectare) Annenberg estate near the U.S. West Coast for the first time as heads of state.

The arrangement, Qu said, has somewhat of a special meaning in that the dialogue faced the Pacific Ocean and concerned cooperation across the ocean.

"The cozy and leisurely environment was helpful for the two leaders to establish a close personal friendship and good working contact. And the approximately eight hours of talks between the two presidents were conducive to fully exchanging in-depth views on bilateral ties and deepening mutual trust," said Qu.

Jin Canrong, Associate Dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, argued the informal meeting showed the confidence of the new Chinese leadership.

"Xi's acceptance of an informal meeting style at an estate lacking ceremonies reflected the self-confidence and pragmatic style of China's new leadership," Jin said.

In addition, Jin said that the estate meeting also reflected the Sino-U.S. relations' growing maturity. By avoiding complicated protocols, the relaxed meeting could help the two leaders focus more on substantive issues.

New type of relations

In 2010, the Obama administration announced its "pivot to Asia" strategy. China, surpassing Japan in 2011, has since become the world's second largest economy. And many analysts claimed the world has shifted its focus from Europe to the Asia Pacific. In this context, as the two most important Asia-Pacific countries and the world's first and second largest economies, China and the United States should find a way to get along well with each other, observers said.

Ancient Greek historian Thucydides claimed it was the Spartans' fear of the growing power of Athens that made war inevitable. Based on this perception, U.S. scholar John J. Mearsheimer wrote in his political treatise The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that established and emerging powers are doomed to confrontation and war.

From a historical standpoint, the world has indeed suffered much pain in the vicious cycle of power struggles. In the 20th century, the most prominent confrontation was between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which lasted for more than four decades and only ended after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But in the 21st century, an era with highly interdependent relations among countries, observers believe a new type of relations between major countries is not impossible.

The new type of relations between major powers, first raised by former Chinese President Hu Jintao at the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2012, is an attempt of China to break the vicious circle and get along well with all other major powers. Its significance was further highlighted when it became a national strategy and was written into a report delivered to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held in November.

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