When Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) sat down with US President Barack Obama in a luxurious estate on the edge of the California desert over the weekend, the Chinese leader delivered a subtle message to his American host: China can play the containment game just as well as the US.
Xi was fresh from a jaunt through Trinidad and Tobago, a tiny island nation in the Caribbean; Costa Rica, a leading nation in Central America; and Mexico, the US’ southern neighbor. Xi tested the doctrine proclaimed in 1823 by then-US president James Monroe, that outsiders stay out of the Americas.
The high point: In Mexico City, Xi and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto agreed that their governments would forge a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”
However, it was left undefined in public.
Yet they agreed that China would build a cultural center in the Mexican capital and Mexico would do the same in Beijing. Such Chinese centers have been bases for political action and intelligence elsewhere.
The Chinese, who have complained loudly and sometimes violently about the projection of US power into the seas and nations around China, thus sought to prove they could operate in the US’ backyard.
They were also seeking to undercut Taiwan, which has diplomatic relations with a dozen Caribbean and Central American nations. Xi was asserting China’s role as a leader in the economically emerging world.
Reinforcing that message, the Nicaraguan government announced last week that it would contract an unnamed Chinese consortium to build a large canal that would compete with the Panama Canal. The Chinese were reported to be in line for a 100-year construction and operating contract.
Finally, confirmed reports said Chinese warships and submarines have occasionally sailed through US exclusive economic zones (EEZ) around Guam and Hawaii, which is permitted under international agreements — but the Chinese have objected vigorously when US Navy ships have sailed through Chinese EEZs.
As for the summit meeting in California, finding out what happened depended on whose briefing transcript you read. Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, gave the US version, while former Chinese minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) gave the Chinese account.
Xi and Obama themselves appeared before the press only briefly on Friday afternoon, each to render a statement and to answer one question. There was no concluding press conference and no joint statement on Saturday about what was accomplished, usually staples even for informal meetings such as this.
Cyberhacking was one issue that evidently got well worked over.
“The president made clear the threat posed to our economic and national security by cyber-enabled economic espionage ... we’re talking about ... efforts by entities in China to, through cyberattacks, engage in the theft of public and private property — intellectual property and other property in the United States,” Donilon said.
“We had a detailed discussion on this ... the president underscored that resolving this issue is really key to the future of US-China economic relations. He asked Xi to continue to look seriously at the problem that we’ve raised here,” he added.
“China opposes hacker or cyberattack in all forms, and is itself a victim,” Yang said.
As reported by Xinhua news agency, Yang said that China and the US face common challenges in cybersecurity, which should be a new highlight of bilateral cooperation instead of a source of suspicion and friction.
The threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea was another issue well chewed, but with the two presidents restating known positions. Indeed, when the political fluff and the diplomatic niceties were brushed aside, most of the other conversations appeared to be reiteration of previously assumed positions.
Thus, the fate of Taiwan and US arms sales to the Taiwanese government remained a contentious issue. So did Chinese claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea and China’s clash with Japan over uninhabited islets called the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) in Taiwan and Senkakus in Japan.
Evidently left unresolved were proposals to coordinate actions against piracy at sea, fight transnational crime, undertake peacekeeping tasks, promote disaster relief, manage climate change and provide for space security. Plans to foster steady military-to-military relations to preclude miscalculation also got little attention.
Perhaps inadvertently, the location selected for the summit turned out to be a fitting choice. The posh estate where Xi and Obama met is just outside the town of Rancho Mirage.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.