Tag Archives: Sunnylands

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.

Cybersecurity as 'pivot' version two? A policy narrative for media-friendly U.S.–China relations

Pivot. “I personally don’t like the term,” said Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for East Asia of the U.S. National Security Council. It was an “unfortunate word” selected by staff seeking a positive press response to President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia in 2011, he said at Beijing’s Tsinghua University on Nov. 29, 2012. Each time the president goes to Asia, he said, the story is always about China, and there are two options: Either the United States came as a supplicant and is in decline, or it put China on its heels. Both stories are wrong, Bader argues, but the word “pivot” was selected to push for the second story in the U.S. press.

The word “pivot” swiftly became “rebalance” in U.S. government statements. To some, it had implied a turn away from other regions, not a reassuring message for those seeking continued support in the Middle East. Some also thought it implied that the United States would shift its interventionist tactics from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. “Rebalance” was rolled out with more nuance, emphasizing at times that it implied only minor increases in the Pacific, instead emphasizing drawdowns elsewhere. Then, the question of whether the “pivot” or “rebalance” had failed as a strategy soared to the top of the discussion after Obama was reelected. In Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation hearings, he implied limited support for a shift of resources: “I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet. I’m not convinced of that. That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully when and if you folks confirm me and I can get in there and sort of dig into this a little deeper.”

With the pivot/rebalance downgraded as a strong-on-China rhetoric, and the deep need for greater engagement with China, what was left to keep the press on the “China on its heels” narrative? Consider cybersecurity. President Obama began a rollout with the State of the Union this year. Without naming China, he made “enemies [who] are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air trafic control systems” the China policy point. The day before, someone had leaked to the Washington Post a classified National Intelligence Estimate naming China as the most aggressive cybersecurity threat.

President Barack Obama meets then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, 2012.

President Barack Obama meets then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, 2012.

In the coming days, the private online security firm Mandiant released a report that allegedly detailed Chinese military involvement in spying on U.S. businesses. A “senior defense official” told The New York Times, “In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow. … Today it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.” Then the White House released its “Strategy to Mitigate the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets,” which does not name China in the body text but features it in six of the seven theft examples in sidebars.

This drumbeat has continued through February and March and up to today. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said in a speech in March that “intellectual property and trade secrets” had “moved to the forefront of our agenda.” Since then, cybersecurity, often with some degree of conflation between national security threats and threats to private intellectual property, has moved to the top of the U.S. media agenda on China, along with North Korea. In the White House background briefing on the upcoming summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the briefers didn’t have to bring up cybersecurity. The first question and half of all questions mentioned the topic (including the meta-question “how do you keep this summit from being a cyber summit?”). Admittedly impressionistic data from Google Trends shows U.S. searches for “China” and “cyber” peaking in February.

U.S. search interest in "China cyber" over time, according to Google Trends.

U.S. search interest in “China cyber” over time, according to Google Trends. (Embedding isn’t working, so here’s a screenshot. The y-axis is calibrated to set the peak in February at 100.)

Now, the White House is in the midst of a significant surge in China diplomacy with considerable attention to the future. The Obama-Xi “shirt-sleeves summit” near Palm Springs, Calif., to take place Friday and Saturday was preceded by, among other efforts:

  • Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to China in August 2011.
  • Xi’s trip to the United States as vice president and heir-apparent, with Biden as his host and an Oval Office meeting with Obama in February 2012.
  • Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew’s trip to China in March 2013.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to China in April 2013.
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey’s trip to China in April 2013.
  • The April announcement of the 2013 round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held in Washington July 8–12, 2013.
  • National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon’s trip to China in May 2013.

It’s possible to view the dogged focus on cybersecurity in the media and in government statements as misplaced. After all, it is unclear what if any effect on actual operations the “naming and shaming” process is having, and we will have to wait and see what further measures the U.S. government might take. Meanwhile, other issues such as energy and climate cooperation, maintaining stability around North Korea, and military-to-military relations are also pressing. Perhaps most of all, say (almost) all the comments out there, Obama and Xi have the opportunity to open a new chapter of U.S.–China relations through high-level dialogue and building a “new kind of great power relations” (Chinese wording) or a “new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one” (U.S. version).

These cooperative notes, however, could trigger the media narrative Bader said the administration dreads: the United States as declining supplicant. Instead, the administration gets to claim they will raise cybersecurity in this and other interactions. They have high-level working groups in progress or planned for cybersecurity (a challenge) and climate change (an opportunity and a challenge). And needless to say, there is the benefit of getting a very serious issue for U.S. businesses and the U.S. national security community on the table in a way the Chinese government cannot entirely ignore.