US spokesmen have described the recent summit between Chinese president Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Barack Obama, which included over eight hours of ‘informal’ meetings, as “unique” and “enormously important”. There was a clearly noticeable emphasis on security and strategic issues during Xi Jinping’s first visit to the US (June 7-8) as China’s president. The focus was firmed up after Tom Donilon, who remains the US national security adviser till July, quite unusually travelled (May 26-28) to Beijing to finalise preparations. The new Chinese leadership’s demonstrably increasing assertiveness, including in Asia-Pacific, ensured the summit attracted considerable international attention.
Beijing had a limited yet ambitious agenda. It wanted recognition of “great power status” and acceptance of its “sovereignty” and “core interests”. The latter is currently centred mainly on the South China Sea and its sovereignty dispute with Japan. Articulating this ambition Beijing declared that Xi Jinping would discuss a “new type of great power relationship”. On the US agenda were the issues of cyber theft, Asia-Pacific, North Korea, climate change and military-to-military relations. Discussions on human rights were peripheral and there was no mention of either Tibet or Taiwan.
China made a distinct effort to portray the summit as between leaders of “two great powers”. Alluding to its strategic significance, Qin Gang, spokesperson of China’s ministry of foreign affairs, emphasised that “this meeting is important to the long-term, sound and steady development of China-US relations as well as regional and international peace, stability and prosperity”.
Global Times, the nationalist subsidiary of the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, reinforced the sentiments observing that “China is growing into a bigger and more far-reaching power”, and that Xi Jinping will discuss a “new type of great power relationship”. The remarks could portend an impending shift in China’s attitude and behaviour towards other countries, which it does not consider as “major powers”, with implications for India.
Chinese analysts highlighted the summit’s importance claiming that despite widespread wariness of US intentions, China’s leadership genuinely desires a stable and productive relationship. Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University said the visit’s aim was to nurture trust and simultaneously project self-confidence.
Beijing utilised the Shangri-la Dialogue, held in Singapore over the last weekend of May, to signal China’s firm stance on issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity. A senior colonel of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reiterated objections to the surveillance of China’s coastline and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by US aircraft and ships. For the first time, a PLA officer divulged that China had “thought of reciprocating” by “sending ships and planes to the US EEZ”, and had actually done so “a few times”. Ni Lexiong, director of the Sea Power and Defence Policy Research Institute at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, confirmed the “changing concept of maritime affairs” of China’s leaders “following the rapid development of China’s maritime industry and rising strength of its naval force in the past decade”.
Coinciding with Donilon’s sojourn in Beijing, the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences released a report on May 28, titled “The Strategic Review 2012”. It highlighted the uncertainties in China’s security environment. Ni Lexiong commented that “the United States has resorted to containing China by forging ties with China’s neighbours, making the dispute more complicated.”
Mian Yang, dean of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and younger brother of Chinese state councilor and former foreign minister Yang Jiechi, published an interesting article in People’s Daily. Crediting Xi Jinping with “innovative thinking” he said the increase in China’s comprehensive national strength had given its new leaders more confidence in dealing with the international community. He said they would focus more on the neighbourhood.
Obama personally lent a positive colour to the summit, describing the discussions as “in-depth, sincere and candid” in building “a new model of major country relationship, and our international and regional issues of mutual interest”.
Donilon hinted at USA’s co-operative stance saying discussions had taken place when it faces “an intense range of bilateral, regional and global challenges on which US-China co-operation is critical”. He said the summit would start building a “new model of relations between great powers”. But China failed to get its pre-eminent status in Asia-Pacific accepted. Instead, the US said it stood for “stable security environment and a regional order rooted in economic openness and peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for the universal rights and freedoms in Asia”.
China’s Global Times quoted Xi Jinping as reiterating that “the Pacific Ocean is vast enough to accommodate the development of two great powers in the world”. He said the summit is “to map out a blueprint for the development of China-US relations and engage in co-operation across the Pacific Ocean”.
Considerable progress was claimed on the North Korea issue and Pyongyang’s timely offer, just prior to the summit, to resume talks would have contributed. Apart from generalities that North Korea should denuclearise and neither country would accept it as a nuclear-armed state, there was no mention of China taking any substantive steps. US concerns on cyber theft were not assuaged, with China only agreeing to “look at this” and engage in a dialogue with the US on norms and rules.
To blunt US complaints, China Daily on June 5 asserted that “cyber-attacks from the US are as grave as the ones the US claims China has conducted”. Intriguing was the timing of the expose by left-leaning British newspaper Guardian of indiscriminate electronic eavesdropping by the US — the very day Xi Jinping landed in California. CIA computer expert Edward Snowden’s presence in Hongkong adds to the mystery.
Xi Jinping has gained, including domestically, from the summit with China appearing to have been accepted by the US as a major power with the prospect of enhanced involvement in resolution of international and regional issues. Simultaneously, the US has shown its unwillingness to surrender power in any part of the globe.
The author is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board and former Additional Secretary in the
Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.