Video: Grading the Obama-Xi Summit

Jon Huntsman, Kevin Rudd, Ian Bremmer, and panel moderator Andy Serwer in discussion at the Concordia Summit 2015 on October 2. Footage provided by the Concordia Summit. (32 min., 25 sec.)

A week after China President Xi Jinping’s first state visit with U.S. President Barack Obama, ASPI President Kevin Rudd joined former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer at the 2015 Concordia Summit to assess the outcomes from the summit and how the U.S. and China might build on the meeting.

Huntsman described the summit as a “home run” for Xi “in terms of the images that were broadcast back to China: Xi Jinping [appearing] strong, sturdy, competent on the world stage, able to deal with the most important bilateral partner.” For the U.S., the summit “might have been slightly above average” but perhaps ended “with a disconnect in terms of our strategic alignment around the big issues,” such as the U.S.-China bilateral investment treaty, security in the Asia-Pacific region, and the South China Sea.

Rudd identified three outcomes that American policy makers should be pleased with: new pledges from Xi Jinping on reining in cyber theft of intellectual property, pledges to prevent the competitive devaluation of the renminbi, and a “fundamental ground shift on Chinese policy on climate change.”

“Expectations prior to [the summit] were pretty disastrous, in terms of things going wrong in the relationship,” Rudd said. But when the substance came out of the meeting, he added, “I thought it was pretty good.”

Bremmer, who serves as ASPI’s Harold J. Newman Distinguished Fellow in Geopolitics, said he thought the summit generated “some real progress.”

“There were some significant takeaways,” Bremmer said. On cyber security, he noted, the U.S. “can say that they moved the needle, and they didn’t have to push sanctions beforehand.”

The three panelists commented on several other aspects of Sino-American relations and China’s rapid ascent as an international power. These include:

Trade diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific: Huntsman pointed to the possibility of a “head-on collision” between the recently-concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), championed by the U.S., and the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Their competing standards, he said, “have to be reconciled at some point.” A U.S.-China bilateral investment treaty, Huntsman said, would serve as “the logical bridge” between TPP and RCEP. Bremmer warned that the U.S. lacks the tools to cope with the “economic challenge” that China poses, noting that the CEOs of many large U.S. technology firms “[stood] in line to say great things about Xi Jinping and say how much they want to do business with him” during a meeting in Seattle on September 23. “That undermines the Americans. It makes it harder because our private sector is not aligned” with U.S. policy makers.

China’s role in the international order: Rudd observed that Xi’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly contained “the most definitive statement I have seen from a Chinese leader about the centrality of the UN rules-based system for the future of the [international] order,” calling the new language “pretty encouraging.” Bremmer, however, said the Chinese are “not becoming ‘responsible stakeholders’” in the sense described in 2005 by then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick “because they’re not taking on the values that the Americans want them to. In fact, they’re actually competing with U.S.-led global architecture. And I think that’s the crux of the significant challenge that we’re going to end up seeing between the U.S. and China.”

The future of U.S.-China relations: Huntsman predicted that the U.S. and Chinese heads of state will lead the bilateral relationship in the future. “I think Xi is prepared to manage it as such,” he said. Rudd concurred, saying, “The U.S.-China relationship can only function at a strategic level, featuring total engagement by the most senior leaders.” He added that the three meetings between Xi and Obama over the past two years have resulted in “robust engagement between the two.”

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Joshua Rosenfield is Director of Content Strategy with the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is based in New York.