Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Op-Eds

Obama-Xi summit shows the danger of personal diplomacy

Since President Richard Nixon's visit to China in February 1972, American presidents have hoped that building personal rapport with Chinese leaders would strengthen bilateral ties and win political points at home.

While Nixon's trip was a diplomatic triumph, later presidents have not been so successful. They usually discover that this type of Sino-American interaction has little impact on the relationship. President Barack Obama's recent effort to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping fits this pattern.

At the start of his presidency, Mr. Obama opted for a low-key approach. In 2009 Mr. Obama and then-President Hu Jintao announced the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The dialogue was a series of regular discussions among high-level officials. These talks, led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner, sought to resolve contentious issues through quiet negotiations.

This approach failed because of fundamental conflicts of interest, not the lack of Sino-American contact. Washington accuses China of engaging in cyber-attacks on business and government computers, supporting North Korea's nuclear program, denying access to China's markets, and raising tensions in the South and East China Seas. As a result, Washington wants Beijing to enact a series of policy changes. From China's perspective, the U.S. seeks to contain China, to change its political system, and to limit its international influence. In response, President Xi has called for a "new type of great power relationship" where the United States acknowledges China's growing military power, economic development and diplomatic clout.

Under increasing public, Congressional and media pressure to respond to China's assertiveness, Mr. Obama requested a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Xi. This weekend, the two presidents met in California for eight hours of informal talks spread over two days. The results appear meager. Mr. Obama could point to one vague agreement with Mr. Xi: "to work together and with other countries" to reduce the production of hydrofluorocarbons, a type of gas that contributes to global warming. Both sides also declared that North Korea should not possess nuclear weapons.

There was little mention of some subjects important to many Americans, such as human rights, at the summit. Immediately after the meeting, the Chinese government sentenced a relative of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to 11 years in prison. The continued harassment of Mr. Liu and his family suggests that Beijing does not expect significant criticism from Washington on human rights issues.

Xi Jinping has little incentive to turn this weekend's photo opportunities and public declarations of friendship into concrete action. Mr. Obama needs a foreign policy and public relations victory more urgently than Mr. Xi. Mr. Obama is mired in a slew of scandals, even as he grapples with contentious domestic issues such as immigration reform. Since Mr. Xi became president in March 2013, he has rapidly consolidated his power and faces no significant rivals at home. He is confident, strongly nationalistic, and frequently talks of the Chinese nation's great renaissance. Mr. Xi also emphasizes the need for the United States and those around China's borders to accept what the Communist Party defines as China's core interests, including territorial claims that Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others strongly oppose.

Just by attending this summit, Mr. Xi got what he wanted. His goal was to highlight China's power and prestige, which he achieved even as he avoided detailed negotiations over specific problems. To his public, the Chinese president can point to this summit as proof that his efforts to gain international respect are working, that China enjoys unique access to American leaders, and that Washington may value ties to China more highly than relations with countries like Japan. The Chinese press emphasized that the United States had accepted Beijing's model for a new great power relationship.

Many American presidents dream of recreating the success of Nixon's 1972 meeting with Chinese leaders. China's strength and assertiveness today make that impossible. President Obama would be better served by not raising hopes that personal diplomacy will lead to dramatic breakthroughs. He should speak frankly to the American people about growing tensions with Beijing. Washington should also reassure long-time friends in the region — Japan, South Korea and Taiwan for example — that Sino-American talks will not harm their interests. Because many of America's disputes with China are shared by other nations, multilateral diplomacy is a better option than informal bilateral summits.

Steven Phillips is a professor in the History Department at Towson University. His email is sphillips@towson.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Fight cyberattacks, not privacy
    Fight cyberattacks, not privacy

    Our view: Legislation to combat foreign and domestic hackers is necessary, but it need not come with a license for the government to collect personal information

  • Realizing a 'Greater' Baltimore
    Realizing a 'Greater' Baltimore

    Though people may describe the region around Baltimore City as "Greater Baltimore," area leaders — from government, business, non-profits and academia — could do more to fully embrace that term and develop the potential it implies. Doing so is a critical component for the...

  • Medicare 'quality indicators' diverge from quality care
    Medicare 'quality indicators' diverge from quality care

    Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced this week that, through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicare would be taking drastic steps to assure that doctors are paid not for visits and procedures, but rather for the value of their work. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid...

  • Exercise: find the time for it
    Exercise: find the time for it

    The early-morning holiday shoppers of last month have been replaced at the mall by early-morning walkers, some of whom have begun new exercise regimens for the new year.

  • Googling America's sex life
    Googling America's sex life

    Google knows my dress size and that I wear flats. It knows I do yoga, and it is always trying to sell me clothes to wear to class.

  • Fund the student, not the college
    Fund the student, not the college

    President Obama's "America's College Promise" plan proposes to make the first two years of community college free to address a number of concerns: American competitiveness, inequality and the bad odds that less advantaged students face in obtaining good jobs.

  • Improper race and religion references in Adnan Syed trial
    Improper race and religion references in Adnan Syed trial

    The trial that culminated in the 2000 conviction of Adnan Syed has been a hotly debated subject in recent weeks, largely because of the popular "Serial" podcast that examined the case. That debate will no doubt intensify in light of a brief that Mr. Syed's current counsel filed this month...

  • Volunteers are needed year round, not just during the holidays
    Volunteers are needed year round, not just during the holidays

    For many families, groups of co-workers and friends, and individuals, volunteering is one of the most meaningful winter traditions. During the December holiday season, they may serve meals or collect food and clothing. In January, the Martin Luther King, Jr. national Day of Service is wonderful...

Comments
Loading