There are unlikely to be any relaxed strolls together by Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama when they meet at the ongoing Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, Peru, unlike their first informal summit at a ranch in California.
Obama, who is preparing to leave the White House, is not only a lame duck president but faces the likelihood his successor will renege on US promises for the APEC region, while Xi, who has concentrated his power at home as he exerts China’s influence abroad, will be focused on strengthening ties with leaders who can help him on either front.
The last official meeting between Xi and Obama is expected to be brief and symbolic, as it is now up to President-elect Donald Trump to move the Sino-US relationship forward.
“They will meet, but they won’t have much to talk about,” said Tao Wenzhao, a researcher on Sino-US ties at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank in Beijing. “The two have already talked enough in Hangzhou … they talked for over five hours in Hangzhou, producing a long list of 35 broad agreements.”
Tao was referring to the G20 summit held in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in September, during which Xi and Obama held intensive discussions and agreed upon a number of issues, despite a diplomatic hiccup when Air Force One didn’t receive a red-carpeted staircase at the local airport.
The state leaders in Hangzhou jointly announced their decision to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a witness. Two months later, however, many of those agreements, including the climate change deal, look fragile after Trump’s win in the US presidential election.
As Xi bids farewell to Obama, the Chinese leader is also saying goodbye to some predictability in China’s most important foreign relationship.
“We can barely predict cooperation between China and US under the Trump administration,” said Zhang Zhexin, a US affairs expert from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
China is particularly nervous of what Trump might do in his first three or four months in the world’s most powerful office, Zhang said.
In addition to many brief meetings on the sidelines of international conferences, Xi and Obama have had many one-to-one discussions since Xi became China’s top leader in 2013.
The first long talk between the two, after Xi became Chinese President, took place at the Sunnylands estate in California in 2013, and the following year Xi hosted Obama in the enclosed Chinese leadership compound at the closing of an APEC summit meeting in Beijing.
The two also spent time together during Xi’s state visit to the United States in 2015, and their most recent meeting was in September in Hangzhou.
Despite disputes over the South China Sea, cybersecurity and human rights, China and the US have maintained a peaceful relationship under Xi and Obama without any major incident, and bilateral trade and investment have continued to grow.
“Despite all the ups and downs, the two basically cooperated well,” Zhang said. “Bilateral trade expanded, cooperation on a global level proceeds well … and most importantly, China even joined military exercises with the US two years ago.”
But it will take much more than a shared handshake in Lima between Obama and Xi to change the two countries’ strategic jostling for dominance in the South China Sea.
Last month, the US Navy Third Fleet deployed the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur to sail near the Paracel Islands in the hotly contested South China Sea, and China’s defence ministry responded that the US presence was “illegal” and “provocative,” saying that two Chinese warships had warned the US destroyer to leave.
“The US has enhanced its alliance network in Asia,” said Yuan Zheng, a US affairs expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It made China wonder what is the real intention of the US and the bilateral mutual trust quickly deteriorated.”