President Barack Obama and his new Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, wrapped up a two-day summit at this sweltering California desert resort Saturday after nearly eight hours of talks and a candle-lit dinner aimed at shaping what both leaders called a “new model” of relations for the future.
The meetings grew contentious Saturday morning when Obama pushed Xi to do more to curb Chinese cyber attacks on U.S. businesses and infrastructure. Obama argued the hacking is “inconsistent with the kind of relationship we want to have with China,” according to Tom Donilon, the president’s national security adviser.
Donilon said Obama detailed cases of massive digital thefts at U.S. companies by entities in China, and he said if they are not addressed, it would become a “very difficult problem in the economic relationship” between the two countries.
Cyber theft, Donilon told reporters, “really now is at the center of the relationship. It is not an adjunct issue.”
The Obama administration has accused China of stealing billions of dollars of technical, financial and other data and intellectual property through cyber attacks. China denies the charge, insisting it is the victim, not the instigator, of digital looting.
On other issues, the two sides agreed to work together for the first time to “phase down the production and consumption” of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases linked to climate change. The gases are in refrigerators, air conditioners and industrial applications.
Donilon said the two leaders also found “quite a bit of alignment” on North Korea, and a possible path for increased cooperation given the threat to regional and U.S. security. Both agreed that North Korea should give up its nuclear weapons.
The presidents discussed North Korea over their Friday night dinner of lobster tamales, porterhouse steak and cherry pie by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
The summit at the Sunnylands estate was notable for its dress code: No one wore neckties, a testament to the oven-like heat and the carefully scripted informality of the presidents’ first meeting since Xi assumed office in March.
Yang Jiechi, China’s state counselor and former foreign minister, told reporters that the importance of the summit was to lay the groundwork for a new relationship, not in any specific accords.
He said cyber security “should not become the root cause of mutual suspicion and friction, rather it should be a new bright spot in our cooperation.”
Yang said the leaders “blazed a new trail” away from disputes in the last 18 months on regional security and computer hacking. He called the session a “strategic, constructive and historic meeting.”
His comments reflect Beijing’s desire to demonstrate Xi’s skills as a firm steward of China’s interests. Xi’s aides viewed the summit as a way to show China and the United States as equals, a theme the Chinese leader has emphasized in public comments.
Undergirding the shift is a worrisome challenge: Will China’s rising ambitions and growing military and economic clout inevitably lead to a clash with the world’s richest and most powerful nation.
The jockeying already has begun. The Obama administration has started to “pivot” military forces and diplomatic focus to China’s periphery in the western Pacific. For his part, Xi arrived here after doling out largesse in high-profile visits to America’s backyard, Mexico and the Caribbean.
“What will happen when a rising power and a great power encounter one another?” asked an editorial in Saturday’s Global Times, a newspaper tied to the Chinese Communist Party. “The U.S. is trying its best to maintain its status quo, in order to retain its hegemony. China ... is eager to become a world power under the rules approved by Western countries.”
Obama gave only a one-word summary of the summit Saturday, his only public comment of the day. “Terrific,” he replied when a reporter asked how the meetings had gone, as he and Xi strolled for 50 minutes by a pond, and then sat together on a redwood bench that Obama presented to his guest.
But in more detailed comments Friday night, both leaders sought to downplay the possibility of tension, highlighting instead shared interests and opportunities for cooperation. They pledged to expand official and informal exchanges on military affairs, economics and trade, cyber security, the environment and other issues.
“China and the United States must find a new path, one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past,” Xi said. If the two nations work together, he added, “we can be an anchor for world stability and the propeller of world peace.”
Obama said he firmly believes “it is very much in the interest of the United States for China to continue its peaceful rise” and to “work with us as equal partners in dealing with many of the global challenges that no single nation can address by itself.”
In response to a question, Obama said both leaders agreed on the need for stiffer cyber security.
“These are uncharted waters and you don’t have the kind of protocols that have governed military and arms issues, where nations have a lot of experience in trying to negotiate what’s acceptable and what’s not,” he said.
In response, Xi said recent media reports “might give people the sense or feeling that cyber security as a threat mainly comes from China” or the issue is the chief irritant in relations with Washington. He suggested that reports were wrong.
Chinese state television lavished considerable footage on the summit, showing Xi animatedly chatting with Obama. Noticeably absent from the coverage was Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, perhaps to avoid noting that first lady Michelle Obama did not attend. The two presidents drank tea for half an hour with Peng on Saturday before the Chinese delegation departed.
Some China watchers and historians say they were struck by how Xi seemed to move comfortably like a Western leader, not only in loosening his collar but in how he seemed to stroll at ease with Obama as the two leaders engaged with each other.
For all the optics, however, Jeff Wasserstrom, a China specialist at the University C Irvine and author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” remained skeptical that Xi will take China down a reformist path as some have suggested.
“We shouldn’t let this blind us to how much continuity there seems to be between Xi and his predecessors when it comes to some basic policies,” he said. And “despite his distinctive personal style, he remains more the first among equals in a collective leadership than someone who can make bold moves largely on his own initiative.”
Nonetheless, analysts said the meeting probably eased tensions on several fronts even if it didn’t solve long-standing points of contention.
“We’ve been coming out of a difficult period for the last 18 months of distrust, and what (Xi is) trying to convey is that we’re heading in the wrong direction,” said Christopher Johnson, a senior fellow and China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He’s saying, ‘Here’s the opportunity to hit the reset button and put this relationship on a more strategic plane.’”
U.S. officials praised the U.S.-China agreement to work together on climate change.
The agreement “is a tremendous accomplishment for (Obama) and his diplomatic team, and a big step forward on climate,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. “The United States and China working together to tackle climate change is a major breakthrough. A global phase-down of HFCs would eliminate more heat-trapping gases by 2050 than the United States emits in an entire decade.”
HFCs are synthetic chemicals developed as substitutes for compounds that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. But HFCs are also seen as contributing to climate change.
U.S. negotiators have pushed China to agree to reduce the gases in the past, but it has resisted because HFCs have come into wide use in the developing world for air conditioning, refrigeration and some foam products.
By Christi Parsons and Paul Richter - Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT) (Parsons reported from Rancho Mirage and Richter from Washington. Don Lee of the Tribune Washington Bureau and Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times in Beijing contributed to this report.)
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