The incredible shrinking Sino-US relationship

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama walks with President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China on the grounds of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., June 8, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The Obama-Xi summit may have kicked off a new era of shrunken U.S.-China relations

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  • The two leaders announced nothing new in California

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  • Obama barely mentioned cyber attacks, the most pressing issue that divides Beijing and Washington

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President Obama called his weekend summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping "terrific," and the meeting at least looked the part, complete with a one-on-one stroll through manicured California gardens. But appearances can be deceiving, especially if the two leaders' press briefings are any indication.

Rather than provide a foundation for deeper engagement on vital economic and security concerns, the summit may have kicked off a new era of shrunken U.S.-China relations. This "new type of great power relationship," as the Chinese put it, is one in which Washington accepts a lack of Chinese cooperation on major issues, and instead focuses on minor concerns to keep ties stable.

In their joint statement and press conference after the first morning of talks Friday, Messrs. Obama and Xi recited long lists of issues that their countries would work on together, from macroeconomic cooperation to climate change to military relations. But when everything but the kitchen sink is labeled a priority, you can be sure that none of it truly is.

The two leaders announced nothing new in California—certainly nothing in the way of concrete progress on matters that most divide their countries. The closest they came was an agreement to use international protocols to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a source of greenhouse gases that is commonly used as a refrigerator coolant.

Meanwhile, the leaders were all but silent on the truly vexing challenges to the U.S.-China relationship. The tone was set in Friday's opening statements, where Mr. Obama barely mentioned cyber attacks, the most pressing issue that divides Beijing and Washington. Mr. Obama also publicly ignored the maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbors that have caused confrontations in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Mr. Xi never had to pledge to rein in Chinese cyber aggression or resolve maritime spats through multilateral mechanisms.

When North Korea came up, the two leaders merely reaffirmed that they agree on the need for Pyongyang's denuclearization. But that is old news, and the Chinese were once again spared from having to make serious commitments to pressure the Kim regime (for instance, by adopting wide-ranging financial sanctions). Instead, Mr. Xi's spokesman said the "pressing need" was to return to the six-party talks, which have for years failed to solve the crisis.

Most glaring was Mr. Obama's timid handling of cybersecurity. Knocked off-balance by news leaks about the National Security Agency's Internet surveillance programs, Mr. Obama could barely muster any strong public words about the extent of Chinese theft of American industrial and technological information (worth perhaps up to $250 billion per year, according to the head of the National Security Agency), let alone the hacking into nearly every significant U.S. weapons system. After eight hours of private talks, the U.S. public could be forgiven for expecting more from Mr. Obama than a recital of Washington's displeasure and an instruction to wait for the results of a Sino-U.S. working group that will convene this summer.

The fact that Mr. Obama's negotiating partner is robbing America blind did not intrude on the U.S. president's desire to make his guest feel welcome. Nor has Mr. Obama followed the lead of U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D., Mich.), who has called for blocking imports of Chinese goods that use stolen U.S. technology.

More than anything, the California summit suggests that Mr. Obama is being forced to accept U.S.-China relations as a game involving modest ambitions and minor accomplishments—one in which he will try to get movement on smaller, less important issues instead of confronting China over major security concerns.

In this respect, the agreement on hydrofluorocarbons may be a harbinger for the future. Reducing carbon emissions is clearly in Beijing's interests given China's dangerously polluted skies. At the same time, there is little the U.S. and China actually have to do together to reduce HFCs in their respective countries. The mirage of cooperation can therefore be an easy substitute for actual progress.

In coming months the White House will likely seek other, similarly slight areas of agreement. To do so, Washington will have to think of itself as a business vying for the China account, asking itself, "What can we do to help Beijing with its needs?" in areas such as energy, environment and cultural ties, all of which were singled out by Mr. Xi this weekend. Such cooperation is fine, but it won't do much to reduce distrust and tension over security and political issues.

In contrast, threats of U.S. retaliation against Chinese cyber aggression and maritime bullying have little place in America's pared-down diplomacy. If Mr. Obama wants progress on more substantive issues, he will have to show a much firmer hand than he displayed in California.

A shrunken approach to U.S.-China relations is fine by Beijing, which is comfortable taking the very long view and waiting to raise issues it considers vital. In the meantime, an America that is more interested in informal meetings and working groups than hardnosed negotiations should not complain when it is regularly outplayed by the country sitting across the table.

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