The result is low expectations for the summit that began informally Thursday night with a working dinner at Blair House between the two presidents but continues more formally Friday with the South Lawn ceremony, Oval Office talks, and a joint press conference.
The White House promises “a very robust discussion of the differences between our two countries,” according to Daniel Kritenbrink, senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council. “We won’t paper over those differences. We’ll be very clear and candid about them,” he told reporters. “Some of those differences will include cyber, economic and trade issues, maritime issues, and human rights.”
With stories fresh in mind of Chinese hacking of private information on millions of American citizens and hundreds of American businesses, looming over the talks is the threat of possible U.S. sanctions against Chinese companies that engage in the cyber snooping. “We’ve also made clear that we have other punitive measures available,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, adding, “Sanctions remain the tool of the United States and we would be prepared, if necessary, to pursue sanctions ... if we felt that there was a case that merited that type of punitive sanction.”
No one anticipated the imposition of sanctions prior to Xi’s arrival in the United States, since that could destroy a summit both sides want to succeed. But if Xi does not give the right answers during the talks, they could be imposed soon afterwards, according to analysts of U.S.-Chinese affairs. But no one seems to know when this could happen. “If the Chinese behavior continues and the most we can get are important but essentially Band-Aid cures for some of the symptoms, at what point does the U.S. have to consider imposing costs?” asked Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council in his first term. That, he said, is the big question for this White House meeting.
The cyber issues, when coupled with Chinese stock-market instability, set the stage for a possibly contentious summit. “The atmospherics for this summit are more fraught, more difficult, than for any summit since the establishment of normal diplomatic relations with China,” said Robert Daly, who heads the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center and formerly worked at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The U.S. administration has been disappointed and surprised by some of Xi’s actions, particularly his willingness to press forward with Chinese claims in the South China Sea that Washington and its allies see as destabilizing and contrary to international law. Additionally, Obama enters the summit with real questions about Xi’s stewardship of the Chinese economy after recent months of Chinese stock-market gyrations and currency adjustments.