What Should Obama and Xi Accomplish at Their California Summit?

How much will the meeting of the two leaders even matter? The latest in an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.

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U.S. President Barack Obama with Xi Jinping, then China's Vice President, during their meeting in the Oval Office on February 14, 2012. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

This post is adapted from a conversation on ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site. See the full exchange here.

Susan Shirk:

It's an excellent idea for President Obama and President Xi to spend two days of quality time together at a private retreat in Southern California. Past meetings between Chinese and American presidents have been too short, formal and scripted for them to develop a genuine personal relationship and understand one another's real intentions. Vice President Joe Biden and then-Vice-President Xi connected well when they spent almost two weeks traveling together and meeting the public first in China and then in the U.S.

Now Obama and Xi will have the same opportunity to develop the rapport that can help them solve problems and manage crises during their terms. Especially in a non-democratic country like China, the leader's personal investment in good relations with the U.S. is one of the greatest diplomatic assets we can have.

We shouldn't expect any major agreements or other "deliverables" to result from this meeting. The goal of the encounter is to establish the personal relationship between the two leaders and explore ways to dispel--or at least better manage--the mutual suspicions that have recently been dragging down the relationship. Both leaders are seeking to reassure one another that their intentions are not hostile.

Identifying and discussing common concerns like climate change, terrorism, and unstable regions like the Middle East are a better start than arm wrestling over contentious bilateral issues. The presidents should also be able to find common ground in their frustrations toward the provocative behavior of North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. But the presidents shouldn't shy away from the tough issues. The value of the meeting will be increased if they can explain to one another why certain actions by the other country--for example, Chinese cyberattacks on American firms and American surveillance activities in Chinese coastal waters--are considered highly offensive.

Obama and Xi also can build empathy by discussing the daunting problems they both face at home. Obama will want to ask Xi what he expects to accomplish in the new round of economic reforms that are being drafted right now. And Xi will want to ask Obama whether he expects to ever get a budget agreement with the Congress. In explaining the political hurdles they face in their domestic initiatives, they can teach one another about the domestic political context in which they operate better than any book or intel briefing can ever do.

Orville Schell:

The reason why so many Americans and Chinese alike look back on the 1972 Nixon/Kissinger visit to China and their interchange with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai with such nostalgia is that it was the last time that U.S.-China relations were visited by a breakthrough that truly transformed the nature of the bilateral relationship. Ever since, we have kept yearning that current leaders would again find a way to transcend existing differences, recognize the myriad number of growing common interests and begin to collaborate in a new and more active way.

But alas, even as our two economies have become ever more intertwined, because of our our very complex history, very different politic systems, opposing ideologies and the deep funds of mutual suspicion about the motives of the other that exists on both sides of the divide, Washington and Beijing have been able to do little more than maintain a reasonably functional level mutual tolerance. Yet still we dream on, entertaining hopes that somehow, somevday, some leader will be able to find the magic key, manage to turn it in the lock and open a new enchanting doorway to a more collaborative relationship.

Now Presidents Obama and Xi have very hopefully decided to grab a few, last minute, informal days together at Walter Annenberg's former estate, Sunnylands, in Palm Springs, California, as Xi returns home from the Carribbean and Mexico. Once again fantasies of a breakthrough between our two increasingly seminal countries are arising. But, at such a moment it is important to remind ourselves that electrifying breakthroughs - such as the ones effected by Nixon and Kissinger in 1972 or Richard Holbrooke with Slobodan Milosevic in 1998 - are not usually the way history progresses. It tends to progress haltingly in grudging increments, not in great leaps forward. As Susan Shirk correctly predicts, the best that can be hoped for is probably that the two leaders "can explain to one another why certain actions by the other country... are considered offensive."

I think her rather modest hopes for the summit are prudent, if not correct. This does not mean, however, that the meeting will be worthless. If anything of consequence is ever to be accomplished by way of recalibrating how our two countries relate to each other, it will only be after a certain modicum of trust is established between the men at the top. And, this is a process that will not only take time, but special circumstances, namely, some quality time together, a commodity which is very hard too gain in our fast-paced modern world.

It is also worth remembering that Xi Jinping is a very different person than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, someone who remained quite elusive to American leaders to the end. (In a decade at China's helm, he never, gave a single interview to a foreign correspondent!). Xi, on the other hand, is someone whose measure we have not yet had a chance to take. And, stripped of the protective armor of protocol, state banquets, 21 gun salutes and motorcades, the two-day experience at Sunnylands may yet reveal him to be someone of a more approachable and direct nature. Indeed, the fact the Xi is not now seeking the pomp and circumstance of a Washington state visit may suggest someone who is more self-confident, practical and down-to-earth, someone who does not need to have his ego curried by the niceties of a full-fledged state visit.

In any event, if there is a re-set button to be found, it will doubtless reveal itself more readily at an informal setting like Sunnylands, where the two leaders will be sequestered without neckties and suits, or armies of security and functionaries. There they will have a chance to spend two whole days together in a congenial atmosphere in what will be an interesting litmus test for China's new leader. Just by accepting such a venue for his first official meeting with President Obama, President Xi reveals himself as someone who is at least willing to dispense with the trappings and niceties of protocol and - we may hope - someone willing also to roll up his sleeves in a more informal way to see if he can forge a new and pragmatic kind of partnership with his American counterpart.

A version of this post appears at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.