What’s At Stake In Obama’s Meeting With Chinese President Xi Jinping

Obama and then-Vice President Xi meet in 2012 (Credit: Reuters)

President Obama will meet face-to-face on Friday evening with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in an informal meeting that has many hoping for a new start on many of the issues that plague the relationship between the two countries.

The meeting, at a desert estate in Rancho Mirage, CA, was something of a surprise when it was first announced two weeks ago. The brainchild of outgoing National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who flew to Beijing last week to help put the final touches on the event, it’s hoped that the two leaders’ one-on-one encounter will help forge something of a personal relationship between them.

Xi only formally took office as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, their analogue to the presidency, in Nov. 2012, making this his first meeting with Obama in this role. A senior White House official described the meeting as a chance to “get to know and to start work with the guy who the President will be dealing with over the next four years.”

For two countries that some have described as potentially forming a “Group of Two” in setting the agenda for the next century, the meeting is an unscripted chance for the leaders to hash out their own visions of what that would look like. Xi brings to the table a history with the United States, forged in his time spent as an student living and conducting research in Iowa, and leadership of a country still attempting to determine its own path of growth. Meanwhile, Obama’s foreign policy has attempted to steer itself towards Asia in recent years, shifting its focus away from the Middle East, a move that has drawn concern from China.

While issues of contention such as accusations of cyber-espionage originating in China will dominate speculation before the event itself, there are several areas where the United States and China share key interests. Combating climate change, an issue that Obama has advocated strong action on, is one where China has traditionally been seen as antagonistic to American goals. However, recent announcements from Beijing on reducing carbon emissions could prove to be a welcome starting point for discussions between the two leaders.

Likewise, both states are interested in preventing North Korea from launching a new war against its southern neighbor, a potentiality that seemed quite likely just months ago. The two have cooperated in strengthening sanctions against Pyongyang at the United Nations, and the Bank of China recently publicly closed the North Korean government’s account. Further security concerns in the region may prove more contentious, but the window still remains open for other areas of discussion.

Analysts are debating what the two should focus on during their meeting. Bloomberg’s editors hoped in an op-ed that California’s “arid air will help clear the ‘strategic distrust’ that has grown between their two nations.” Thirty human rights organizations joined with Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to send Obama a letter urging him to place human rights on the meeting’s agenda. Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng seems skeptical of the very premise of the meeting, calling it “another in a series of ostensibly important but aimless steps on an increasingly rocky path.”

CAP’s Rudy DeLeon and Robert Roche in a column on Thursday on the upcoming summit, disagreeing with the skeptics. Instead, DeLeon and Roche argue that Obama should use Friday’s meeting “to lay out what China can do for the world at large.” “As China’s influence continues to grow with its economy, the country needs to step up and play a constructive and responsible role on the world stage without hiding behind the excuse of still being a developing country,” concluding the meeting is an “important opportunity for both sides to talk honestly and frankly with one another, determine areas of mutual agreement, and help rebuild some of the trust that has frayed a bit in recent years.”