MEETING OF THE MINDS: Chinese President Xi Jinping holds talks with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California on June 8 (YAO DAWEI)
The meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama at Sunnylands, the former Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7-8 was unprecedented in its relatively informal format. More importantly, the meeting was a significant step forward in the process of forging a new type of great power relations between China and the United States.
While an informal meeting between Chinese and American leaders is not without precedent—President Jiang Zemin visited U.S. President George W. Bush at his ranch in Texas before they both attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Mexico in 2002—the scope and tone were unique for a meeting of Chinese and U.S. presidents. Such a casual setting, encouraged by the informality of both men (be it Xi's call to serve only "four dishes and a soup" at official banquets or Obama's "beer summits"), showed their willingness to apply that informal approach to bettering China-U.S. relations.
The informal setting, which will be repeated at a future Xi-Obama summit in China, began the process of building a more personal, more cooperative and more sincere relationship between the two leaders. The ultimate beneficiary is China-U.S. relations, as well as the world, largely through an improved level of trust, openness and cooperation between the world's two preeminent powers.
Xi and Obama held eight hours of talks—including roughly 50 minutes one on one, with no aides other than their interpreters—that covered a range of bilateral, regional and global issues of common concern. While their talks on the first evening explored security and geopolitical issues, the meetings on the second day focused primarily on economic and trade issues.
What was notable about this summit is that American and Chinese presidents had never sat down outside Beijing or Washington for a wide-ranging dialogue that continued for many hours, unconstrained by the formalities that come with an official visit. While the meeting lacked most of the usual White House ceremonial honors reserved for a visiting leader, the lack of pomp and circumstance began a new, and promising, phase in China-U.S. relations, one not seen since President Richard Nixon's meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972.
The informal setting provided Xi and Obama with the opportunity to begin an ongoing and constructive dialogue between the two nations that will avoid confrontation and foster genuine cooperation on a range of shared economic and diplomatic issues. While some important issues were raised in the summit, it will probably be best remembered as the "shirt sleeve summit," where the leaders of the world's two most important nations got to know each other just a little bit better. The fact that Xi agreed to meet Obama in the United States (technically, it was Obama's turn to visit China) was a positive sign in China-U.S. relations. It signaled to the world the significance that both nations place on healthier China-U.S. relations.
The summit was the culmination of a series of recent high-level China-U.S. meetings that have emphasized a new tone of cooperation between the two nations. And just in time, considering that the state of China-U.S. relations over the last few years has been one of growing distrust on the part of both nations over long-term goals and intentions. Continuity and change in both Beijing and Washington, with Obama's re-election last November and the confirmation of President Xi and his leadership team in March, have provided the two nations with an opportunity for closer cooperation on a host of issues of mutual interest and concern.