09 November 2014

Obama, Xi to Meet in Beijing Amid Political and Economic Strains

David Nakamura and Steven Mufson, “Obama, Xi to Meet in Beijing Amid Political and Economic Strains,” Washington Post, 8 November 2014.

When President Obama arrives in Beijing on Monday for his first visit since 2009, Chinese President Xi Jinping will welcome him with all the pomp of a state visit. That evening, fireworks will open a meeting of Asia Pacific leaders. …

The atmospherics in Beijing leading up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit could be better. A string of nasty articles about foreign forces has appeared recently on blogs and in the state-run media, coloring the political atmosphere. Barely four weeks ago, at a meeting about the political role of arts and culture, Xi warmly shook hands with anti-American blogger Zhou Xiaoping, whose posting “Shattered Dreams in America” railed on a “greedy” and “oppressive” economic system.

Despite the strains, officials on both sides are working to make this summit a success. Steps to slow climate change — a priority for Obama and Chinese alarmed by choking pollution — offer the most likely area for progress.

There has been a flurry of preparation recently, including a visit by Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi to Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s Boston home and a visit by Obama’s chief of staff, John Podesta, and the State Department’s top climate negotiator, Todd Stern, to Beijing. National security adviser Susan E. Rice made her first visit to China in September, pressing Xi and other top officials to aid international efforts to combat Ebola and the Islamic State. …

In a speech at Georgetown University in November 2013, Rice said that the administration’s strategy is aimed at managing “inevitable competition while forging deeper cooperation on issues where our interests converge — in Asia and beyond.” She cited North Korea, Iranian nuclear negotiations, Afghanistan and Sudan as areas where the two nations could work together.

Two days later, however, the Chinese stunned the administration by declaring an air defense zone in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan and known in China as the Diaoyu Islands. The move was rooted in long-standing regional tensions and historical grievances, but it risked actual conflict with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. Moreover, its timing, on the eve of Vice President Biden’s visit to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul in December 2013, embarrassed the White House.

On Dec. 4, 2013, Biden warned Xi during a face-to-face meeting in Beijing not to establish another air defense zone over disputed waters in the South China Sea, and administration officials point to the fact that Beijing has not done so as a successful outcome. But in early 2014, the Chinese Navy [Note from Andrew Erickson: and other maritime forces, e.g., the consolidating Coast Guard] continued to flex its muscle, ramming fishing boats, claiming territorial rights over additional islands and setting up a deep-sea oil-exploration rig off of Vietnam.

“They’re unreconstructed realists,” said Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “They’re constantly testing us. If they sense an opportunity, they push forward.” …