WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has invested more time building personal ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping than with most other world leaders. But as Xi arrives in Washington late Thursday for a grand state visit, it’s clear that Obama’s overtures have produced decidedly mixed results.
During intimate walks and hours of private discussion around the world, Obama and Xi forged a historic breakthrough to combat climate change and collaborated on efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program. But there’s been little progress on a pair of vexing security issues that will be at the forefront of their latest round of discussions: China’s cyberspying in the U.S. and its disputed territorial claims in the Asian Pacific.
“The assumptions that many people had, that cooperation on transnational threats like climate change would ameliorate problems in geopolitical arenas were wrong,” said Michael Green, White House Asian Affairs director under President George W. Bush and current senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Before plunging into the pageantry of the state visit, Obama and Xi met for dinner Thursday night at Blair House, the guest residence steps from the White House. They were joined by Vice President Joe Biden, who has also played a central role in building the administration’s relationship with the Chinese leader. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice were also on hand for the informal dinner, where both world leaders ditched their ties.
Biden greeted Xi when his plane touched down at a military base near Washington.
U.S. officials point to Obama and Xi’s unusually informal 2013 summit at the Sunnylands estate in Southern California as a key moment in the efforts to build rapport. Last year, Obama traveled to Beijing, and the two leaders strolled in the sprawling gardens next to the Forbidden City and met over a lengthy private dinner where details of the climate change agreement were finalized.
“I think what’s been distinct about their relationship, starting at Sunnylands, is far and away the most constructive engagements they’ve had have been in their private dinners,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
Obama and Xi’s relationship, however, will be tested anew as their talks delve into China’s flouting of U.S. concerns about cyberattacks and Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. U.S. officials also will be assessing the state of the Chinese economy, which is in the midst of a slowdown after more than two decades of super-charged growth.
Obama and top U.S. officials have publicly and privately warned China that continued computer hacking will come with consequences, including economic sanctions on businesses and individuals.
“This is not just a matter of us being mildly upset, but is something that will put significant strains on a bilateral relationship if not resolved and that we are prepared to take some countervailing actions,” Obama said this month.
Obama administration officials say China is getting the message. After Rice sharply warned Beijing about its actions during a visit to lay the groundwork for Xi’s trip, China dispatched its top domestic security official to Washington to try to stave off sanctions ahead of the president’s arrival.
China has denied being behind cyberspying in the U.S. and says it, too, is a victim of such espionage.
Obama and Xi are also expected to discuss China’s disputed territorial claims, which have unnerved some U.S. partners in the Asia. The U.S. is particularly concerned about China’s building of artificial islands with military facilities in the South China Sea.
Foreshadowing Obama’s message to Xi on the matter, Rice said this week that, “The United States of America will sail, fly, and operate anywhere that international law permits.”
Xi’s visit has been noted in the 2016 presidential campaign, as well. Some Republican candidates called on Obama to downgrade Xi’s state visit to a more low-key bilateral meeting, stripping the Chinese of the pomp and formality they favor.
“I’d have them come over all right, but I’d cancel the state dinner,” said Carly Fiorina, the former technology executive seeking the Republican nomination.
The White House has dismissed the Republican calls, with Asian affairs director Dan Kritenbrink saying the event “represents good, smart diplomacy.”
The state visit will formally begin Friday morning with an elaborate welcome ceremony on the White House South Lawn, two days after the event there for Pope Francis, though with a much smaller crowd. The leaders will then hold private talks in the Oval Office before taking questions in a joint Rose Garden news conference.
A highlight of the visit will be the state dinner, a black-tie affair where guests will dine on Maine lobster and Colorado lamb.