Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States has been anticipated since it was announced in February. Now that Xi and U.S. President Barack Obama have issued their statements and held their big press conference, it’s time to ask: what actually came out of their meetings?
In the lead-up to Xi’s visit, the Obama administration was pushing hard for progress on cyber issues. Obama even dangled the threat of sanctions against Chinese cyber economic espionage. After some frantic diplomacy, including a visit from a Chinese delegation the week before Xi arrived, here’s where things wound up.
On the surface, it seems like Obama got what he wanted. According to the White House, both sides agreed “that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.”
It’s an important acknowledgement, but on its own won’t do much to solve the problem. After all, in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Xi insisted that “[t]he Chinese government does not engage in theft of commercial secrets in any form, nor does it encourage or support Chinese companies to engage in such practices in any way.” So China has apparently agreed not to do something it has repeatedly insisted it doesn’t do – that’s not going to make U.S. companies feel more secure.
Asked about this during his press conference with Xi, Obama acknowledged that the real question is whether “words [are] followed by actions.” He said the United States will be watching closely for signs of progress on this issue. As for whether sanctions are still on the table, Obama said the U.S. government will use “whatever tools we have in our toolkit” to go after cyber criminals “either retrospectively or prospectively.” However, he added that any measures taken would likely target individuals or entities rather than governments.
Also on cyber, the U.S. and China agreed to set up a “high-level joint dialogue mechanism on fighting cybercrime” – a step Xi previously mentioned in his Seattle speech. This will be a ministerial level dialogue, co-chaired on the U.S. side by the secretary of homeland security and the attorney general.
The two sides also agreed to expand their cooperation on the investigation of cyber crimes, which Obama called “significant progress.” According to the White House, both sides agreed to cooperate “with requests to investigate cybercrimes, collect electronic evidence, and mitigate malicious cyber activity emanating from their territory,” and provide updates on those investigations.
There was no full-blown cyber arms deal, a possibility raised by media reports ahead of the summit, but the White House said both the U.S. and China “welcome the July 2015 report of the UN Group of Governmental Experts in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International security,” which laid out some principles for cyber norms.
South China Sea
The South China Sea was the other big topic on the agenda, and here we saw basically no progress. The phrase didn’t even appear in a White House fact sheet on the summit, and in their joint press conference Obama and Xi did nothing more than reiterate their respective positions on the issue. As expected, the two sides remain far apart on the issue of China’s conduct in the South China Sea.
Bilateral Investment Treaty
When Xi’s visit was first announced, analysts thought that progress on a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) could potentially be the big deliverable. That turned out to be overly optimistic. The two sides have apparently not made much progress since exchanging their negative lists – the list of sectors that would remain off-limits to foreign investment. The BIT didn’t even merit a mention in the main White House fact sheet.
In the press conference, Obama and Xi both mentioned the negotiations, saying they had agreed to “step up” (Obama’s words) and “vigorously push forward (Xi’s) the negotiations. That’s diplospeak to cover the fact that, as of yet, things aren’t going as well as either side would like.
A separate White House fact sheet on economic relations said there had been “positive progress” on the negotiations, with “improved negative list proposals in September.” “The Leaders reaffirm as a top economic priority the negotiation of a high standard BIT,” the White House said.
The military-to-military field didn’t receive a whole lot of attention in the press conference, nor was it a particularly prominent part of the White House fact sheet. Still, progress was made here that shouldn’t be overlooked.
As China’s Defense Ministry had already announced, the U.S. and China finalized and signed an agreement to govern air-to-air encounters between their militaries. That will help prevent dangerous aerial encounters between the two militaries by providing rules of behavior for the pilots.
Second, the U.S. has gotten China to commit to looking into a similar confidence-building measure guiding the behavior of their respective Coast Guards, something the Pentagon has been pushing for. That’s particularly important given that China’s Coast Guard is more active than its Navy in patrolling the South China Sea. As Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, recently noted, “Many of the encounters at sea that my naval ships have are as frequent with the Chinese Coast Guard — and other coast guards — as it is with the Chinese navy ships.”
New announcements on climate change will probably go down as the biggest outcome of this meeting. In a joint presidential statement on climate change, China announced that it will start a “national emission trading system” in 2017, a major step forward. The United States pointed to its Clean Power Plan, which pledges to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector 32 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030.
Those announcements on new domestic policies are designed to help increase the chances of a successful agreement at the UN climate change summit to be held in Paris this December. In their joint statement, Obama and Xi “reaffirm their commitment to reach an ambitious agreement in 2015.” As Obama put it in the press conference, with the U.S. and China – the world’s two largest emitters, representing both the developed and developing world – can come together, there’s “no reason” for other countries not to join their efforts.
The Bilateral Relationship as a Whole
The two presidents both stressed that the U.S.-China relationship is doing just fine, thank you. Obama began his prepared remarks by declaring that “our cooperation is delivering results”; Xi said that China considers developing a “new type major country relationship” with the United States to be “a priority in China’s foreign policy.”
That’s nothing we haven’t heard before from the two leaders. The question now is how the relationship progresses now that the big summit is over. Without the intense pressure to keep ties steady and ensure a successful visit for Xi, where will the relationship go now?