Headlines hail ‘Sunnylands 2,’ but US government is equivocal

Robert S. Wang

Robert S. Wang

Robert S. Wang, formerly the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Beijing and now the senior U.S. official for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), told reporters in Washington Wednesday that U.S. President Barack Obama would remain in Beijing for a one-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 12, following the APEC Leaders Summit to be held earlier in the week.

Headline writers have already called the meeting “Sunnylands II” and “Sunnylands 2.0.” But what Wang actually said left open the possibility of a more run-of-the-mill bilateral meeting.

Asked by a reporter whether the meeting would adopt the informal style of the June 7–8, 2013, meetings between the two presidents at the the Sunnylands estate in California, Wang did not provide a direct answer:

MR. WANG: Yeah, as I mentioned at the very beginning, after the leaders meeting is finished, the 10th and 11th, President Obama will stay behind in Beijing on the 12th, and so that’s where the bilateral meetings will be held between China and the United States. Some of the questions you’ve asked actually are probably best answered by the Chinese. We don’t know exactly what the Chinese have planned for the 12th in terms of how they want to do the bilateral at this stage, so I think that’s still in the process of discussion.

But obviously, I’ve heard a lot of comments about how effective it is to actually have smaller meetings where you can actually talk about issues in a more personal way, and I think knowing President Obama’s style and, of course, from the U.S. point of view, we did Sunnyland[s], and so we think that that’s an effective way of doing things. But – and of course, the Chinese seem to be receptive to that, but exactly what they have planned, we don’t really know at this stage whether it’ll be Beijing, whether it’ll be outside somewhere else. But that’s something I think that the Chinese are discussing with us, but not yet decided, I believe.

Media reports that the November 12 meeting will be “informal” and similar to Sunnylands hinge on the phrase in italics above, which strikes me as pretty weak. Also note that Wang says both “President Obama will stay behind in Beijing on the 12th, and so that’s where the bilateral meetings will be held,” and “we don’t really know at this stage whether it’ll be Beijing, whether it’ll be outside somewhere else.” The meetings will occur in Beijing, but we don’t really know whether it might be somewhere else.

In all likelihood, both governments would like to signal continuity with last June’s effort, which produced considerable optimism about the two governments’ ability to work on both areas of disagreement and common challenges. The U.S. and international media narrative on Obama in East Asia, however, took a hit when he skipped a trip to last year’s APEC summit to attend to the U.S. government shutdown. As I argued at the time, “what hurts the United States is not a few cancelled meetings, but dysfunction in the U.S. political system that distracts from long-term foreign policy goals.” If Obama followed-up with real personal attention despite the constant supply of international fires that need fighting, I argued, little would be lost.

Since Sunnylands, the sense that the U.S. government has been neglecting its East Asia policy and especially constructive relations with China has nonetheless been hard to escape. The Chinese government, of course, is not without blame. When Vice President Joe Biden traveled to China in December, it seemed his visit might continue the spirit of Sunnylands; but the Chinese government announced its East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ), surprising the U.S. side and souring the atmosphere for Biden’s visit.

So will November’s Obama–Xi meeting be informal? Will the delegations shed their ties? Will they leave Beijing’s formal reception halls for a countryside retreat (in the south, if they want to stroll outside)?  Or will the meeting take a different course? Despite today’s headlines, we’ll have to wait and see.

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Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive not a factional struggle, or not one we recognize?

Cheng Li, director of the Thornton China Center at Brookings, and his assistant director Ryan McElveen argue at China-US Focus that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive is genuinely the most significant ever in the People’s Republic of China.

They also seek to refute speculation that Xi is simply trying to eliminate competitors from one or more other factions and concerns that the campaign is damaging the economy.

While Xi’s campaign has been deep and pervasive, it has not been excessive. A large number—but only a small percentage—of officials have been affected. China has over 5,000 officials who rank at the vice minister level or above. Of those officials, only 32 have been arrested, amounting to only roughly one-half of 1 percent of high-ranking officials.

Although the primary leaders of the campaign—namely Xi Jinping and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Chief Wang Qishan— are both princelings in the faction led by former President Jiang Zemin, their factional association has not been a major driver of the campaign. In fact, the four largest corruption cases (namely Bo Xilai, Liu Zhijun, Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang) have all involved heavyweight leaders in the Jiang camp.

Despite having targeted these members of his own camp, it is also unlikely that Xi has strained his relationship with his two main patrons, former President Jiang and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong. Instead, he has most likely made a deal with them. Yet the majority of the prominent members of the Jiang camp, including some who were very close to Bo Xilai, Liu Zhijun and Xu Caihou, still remain in power.

If they’re right, this would seem to undermine a narrative I heard recently from Japanese analysts including Tetsuo Kotani, who argued in a recent speech in Beijing that some of China’s recent external activities—for example introducing the East China Sea ADIZ—reflect concessions to factions under pressure in the anti-corruption drive. As I heard it (and not just from Kotani), the idea is that Xi was seeking to solidify power through eliminating some “tigers” who hold sway over large networks of cadres, but that this upset some in the military and oil industry systems. Thus what neighboring countries have called “provocations” or “assertiveness” from China have been to some extent side-effects of domestic power plays. The PLA Air Force gets an ADIZ, and the oil industry gets to deploy its platform near Vietnam.

This explanation always seemed a little too neat and tidy to capture the full story, and the Brookings writers make a decent case. But reality is very likely to be somewhere in-between or something entirely different, and it seems unlikely that there is simply no “factional” play or rival-elimination going on in the anti-corruption campaign. Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen make a concise case that the highest-profile individuals to fall came from the same Jiang Zemin–oriented network as Xi and Wang Qishan. But what if this is not the salient division, and what if different battle lines have been drawn that aren’t captured by asking who’s loyal to Jiang or Hu Jintao?

A truly comprehensive anti-corruption campaign would have to be much, much bigger than what we’re seeing, so there must be a reason some people are targeted and some are not. Indeed, former Politburo Standing Committee No. 2 Wen Jiabao and Xi himself have been shown to have family members with immense wealth. There are clearly choices made on whom to target, and political analysts clearly don’t know exactly how they’re made.

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Site undergoing repairs


This site is undergoing repairs and some functions may not be stable for a few days. I hope to have everything back to normal by the end of this week.


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Pictures of Obama, Xi, Abe, and others hobnobbing in The Hague

White House transcript of remarks by Obama and Xi is here.

Obama’s team standing off-camera. Danny Russel, Susan Rice, John Kerry. Is Evan Medeiros behind Russel?

Is Xi following Obama’s lead with the jacket buttoning?

Xi’s team in a meeting with the Dutch Parliament.

Wonder who decided these two should sit next to one another:

Xi got Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan

Hey! This guy!

Someone’s not invited.

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What did Baucus really say he's 'very wary' of in US-China ties?

Max Baucus

Max Baucus.

In a news cycle guaranteed to be dominated by President Barack Obama’s State of the Union, Senator and Ambassador to China–designate Max Baucus visited the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing this week (video). His opening statement was relatively bland, and the atmosphere among veterans of the Senate was mostly chummy, even though Senator John McCain took the opportunity to make a speech about the risk of a World War I–like situation in East Asia. But media soon reported that Baucus was distancing himself from the White House’s careful acceptance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “new type of great power relations” (新型大国关系) concept.

The South China Morning Post reported:

He even said the US should be “very wary” of President Xi Jinping’s frequent call for Beijing and Washington to develop a “new type of major-power relationship”, saying the model was “not an approach that makes sense to me”. He said his approach to Beijing would be “cautious” and he agreed with Republican Senator John McCain that China was trying to be the dominant power in Asia.

Really? Agence France-Presse reported something similar:

Baucus distanced himself from President Xi Jinping’s frequent calls for China and the United States to develop a “new type of major-power relationship.” President Barack Obama’s administration had initially welcomed Xi’s theme, which some US experts saw as innocuous and vague but others viewed with suspicion.

Under questioning, Baucus said that the United States “should be very wary” of Xi’s new relationship model which “is not an approach that makes sense to me.”

“It’s frankly one that suggests that China take care of its own issues in China, whether it’s the human rights issues, or whether it’s Taiwan” or islands contested with Japan, Baucus said.

In reality, Baucus made somewhat more subtle comments that might be even more problematic from the Chinese side. Since the official transcript isn’t out yet, I have transcribed the pertinent section, which runs from about 36:30 to 40:50 in the video. Key statements in bold, and any corrections or comments welcome. What emerges is that, first, Baucus in this answer did not use the full phrase “new type of great power relations” or the White House version, “new model for of major country relations.” [My typo there on of/for. -gw] He did, however, appear to agree with or accept the premise of a question from Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, and he said he’s sure Obama agrees, even though he hasn’t checked:

MENENDEZ: You are extremely well versed in all of the economic trade and related issues and I think as someone who’s had the privilege of sitting on the Finance Committee under your chairmanship, I’ve seen that first hand. But as you recognized in your opening statements, this is a pretty comprehensive portfolio with China. And in that regard I’d like to visit with you on one or two things. One is China continues to refer to a “new type of great power relationship,” and I wonder what you think China means by that. And is that China laying down a marker for saying, “Hey, we have a greater say in our backyard,” so to speak? And what should America’s counter be? Should we even be using that phrase? What are your views on that?

BAUCUS … It is imperative that we in America be deeper involved in the Asia-Pacific. The rebalancing mentioned by our president … I think is critical. Because the United States and Chinese relationship is so [valid/valuable?] to solving problems not just in China and America but worldwide. China talks about a new relationship. I think it’s always interesting and somewhat helpful to talk about new relationships, to look forward to try to find something new and something afresh—like Chinese New Year, [the] first of any new year.

But China’s interpretation of the new relationship as I understand it, that is revolving around its, as it says, its core interests is one that I think we should be very wary of. As I understand China’s interpretation of the new relationship and focus on its core interests, it’s frankly one that suggests that China take care of its own issues in China, whether the human rights issues, or whether it’s Taiwan, or its the Senkaku Islands—Diaoyu in their version—or the South China Sea. And that’s essentially a version where China takes care of its part of the world and the rest of the countries take care of their parts of the world. That is not an approach that makes sense to me. That’s not an approach which makes sense, I’m sure, to the president, though we’ve not talked specifically about this.

The approach that makes sense is for the United States to urge China to be a full member of and participate fully in the United Nations, rule of law, to resolve issues according to international rule of law principles and norms and that includes work with the United Nations with respect to North Korea, United Nations with respect to Syria and Iran. It means open skies, open seas to maintain security in the world. Half of the commercial tonnage shipped in the world today crosses through the Straits [sic.] of Malacca in the South China Sea. It’s extremely important that the United States stays engaged in the world and helps work with China. The approach to China should be—it’s very simple at this point—it’s positive, it’s cooperative, we work to constructive results. But one grounded in reality. We stand up for our principles, stand up for our principles as we work and engage China.

It is perhaps not the best sign when a nominee gives his own view of the intentions of a foreign leader, and then says he’s confident his president agrees, just before admitting he hasn’t checked. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that Obama has actually explicitly embraced the concept of a “new model of major country relations. A joint fact sheet published by the Chinese government and the White House in December begins: “Building on President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping’s shared commitment to building a new model of major country relations, both countries affirm their commitment to practical cooperation for the benefit of our two economies and to address global economic challenges” (emphasis added).

This is a big course change for Baucus, and there is a lot of subtlety to take on board. It seems more likely he is still in the orientation phase rather than making a break from the administration, and perhaps White House officials did not take as much time to prepare a nominee virtually guaranteed to be confirmed. But those inside and outside the government in China watch carefully for changes in language, so we will have to see what develops.

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Since 2006, Transpacifica has been a blog, and collection of resources on East Asian politics and international relations in the Asia-Pacific, with a special focus on China, Japan, and the United States. Transpacifica is edited and primarily written by Graham Webster, Research Scholar and Senior Fellow for U.S.–China Relations, Yale Law School China Center. Get in touch, or follow Graham on Twitter.