Since President Richard Nixon's visit to China in February 1972, American presidents have hoped that building personal rapport with Chinese leaders would strengthen bilateral ties and win political points at home.
While Nixon's trip was a diplomatic triumph, later presidents have not been so successful. They usually discover that this type of Sino-American interaction has little impact on the relationship. President Barack Obama's recent effort to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping fits this pattern.
At the start of his presidency, Obama opted for a low-key approach. In 2009, Obama and then-President Hu Jintao announced the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The dialogue was a series of regular discussions among high-level officials. These talks, led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner, sought to resolve contentious issues through quiet negotiations.
This approach failed because of fundamental conflicts of interest, not the lack of Sino-American contact. Washington accuses China of engaging in cyber-attacks on business and government computers, supporting North Korea's nuclear program, denying access to China's markets, and raising tensions in the South and East China Seas. As a result, Washington wants Beijing to enact a series of policy changes. From China's perspective, the U.S. seeks to contain China, to change its political system, and to limit its international influence. In response, President Xi has called for a "new type of great power relationship" where the United States acknowledges China's growing military power, economic development and diplomatic clout.
Under increasing public, congressional and media pressure to respond to China's assertiveness, Obama requested a face-to-face meeting with Xi. Last weekend, the two presidents met in California for eight hours of informal talks spread over two days. The results appear meager. Obama could point to one vague agreement with Xi: "to work together and with other countries" to reduce the production of hydrofluorocarbons, a type of gas that contributes to global warming. Both sides also declared that North Korea should not possess nuclear weapons.
There was little mention of some subjects important to many Americans, such as human rights, at the summit. Immediately after the meeting, the Chinese government sentenced a relative of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to 11 years in prison. The continued harassment of Liu and his family suggests that Beijing does not expect significant criticism from Washington on human rights issues.
Xi Jinping has little incentive to turn the weekend's photo opportunities and public declarations of friendship into concrete action. Obama needs a foreign policy and public relations victory more urgently than Xi. Obama is mired in a slew of scandals, even as he grapples with contentious domestic issues such as immigration reform. Since Xi became president in March 2013, he has rapidly consolidated his power and faces no significant rivals at home.
Just by attending this summit, Xi got what he wanted. His goal was to highlight China's power and prestige, which he achieved even as he avoided detailed negotiations over specific problems. To his public, the Chinese president can point to this summit as proof that his efforts to gain international respect are working, that China enjoys unique access to American leaders, and that Washington may value ties to China more highly than relations with countries like Japan. The Chinese press emphasized that the United States had accepted Beijing's model for a new great power relationship.
Many American presidents dream of recreating the success of Nixon's 1972 meeting with Chinese leaders. China's strength and assertiveness today make that impossible. President Obama would be better served by not raising hopes that personal diplomacy will lead to dramatic breakthroughs. He should speak frankly to the American people about growing tensions with Beijing. Washington should also reassure long-time friends in the region — Japan, South Korea and Taiwan for example — that Sino-American talks will not harm their interests. Because many of America's disputes with China are shared by other nations, multilateral diplomacy is a better option than informal bilateral summits.
Steven Phillips is a professor in the History Department at Towson University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.