Scoring Obama and Xi: Big Goals But Not Much Agreement

OBAMA JINPING

U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he stands for photographs with Xi Jinping, China's president; first lady Michelle Obama; and Peng Liyuan, China's first lady, on the North Portico of the White House during a state visit in Washington on Sept. 25, 2015.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
  • Climate change emerged as top area of consensus in summit
  • Disputes remain on South China Sea, human rights, economy

President Barack Obama welcomed Chinese president Xi Jinping to the White House Friday for what Obama described as "candid conversations" spanning controversial topics from cybersecurity to human rights and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. 

Xi said the conversations were “constructive and productive” and that the Chinese were eager to engage in “win-win cooperation” with the U.S.

So, how’d they do? Here’s a scorecard on what the two leaders agreed to, and where they appear to remain divided:

Cybersecurity

  • Issue: U.S. anger at Chinese corporate computer hacking was the major point of contention heading into the meeting.

  • Agreement: Vague. A broad set of anti-hacking principles, including a pledge not to steal corporate intellectual property or trade secrets with the intent to create a competitive advantage. Obama and Xi said they would coordinate more closely on investigations into cybercrime, including by establishing a hotline between officials in both countries.

  • Division: Obama said it remains to be seen whether China makes good on its promise and he held out the prospect of sanctions against individuals or entities responsible for commercial hacking. Neither leader publicly addressed intrusions into the Office of Personnel Management, in which U.S. officials say that hackers directed by the Chinese government stole data on about 22 million current and former federal workers. The administration differentiates hacking for intelligence gathering and traditional espionage purposes from attacks against companies.

    “The question now is, are words followed by actions?” Obama said. “And we will be watching carefully to make an assessment as to whether progress has been made in this area.”

Climate Change

  • Issue: The U.S. and China were both eager to highlight a rare area of cooperation on the threat of global warming.

  • Agreement: Substantial. Xi announced new pollution-control initiatives intended to put momentum behind an international climate accord to be negotiated at United Nations talks later this year in Paris. China will begin a nationwide cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions by some of its largest industries and promised 20 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) to help developing countries abandon fossil fuels. China also agreed to limit public financing of high-pollution infrastructure, and both countries said they would enact new fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles by 2019.

    “When the world’s two largest economies, energy consumers and carbon emitters come together like this, then there is no reason for other countries, whether developed or developing, to not do so as well,” Obama said.

  • Division: Nothing public, though China still produces about 64 percent of its energy from coal and the country’s carbon emissions are expected to continue to grow for the next few years before any reductions.

South China Sea

  • Issue: China’s territorial claim to islands in the South China Sea that are thought to be resource-rich has drawn the ire of its neighbors including the Philippines, a U.S. ally, and Vietnam. China has built airstrips and other military infrastructure on some of the disputed islands.

  • Agreement: There wasn’t much. Xi pledged to allow for freedom of navigation in the sea and said China “does not intend to pursue militarization” of the area.

  • Division: Remains wide. Xi reiterated China’s claim, saying the islands have belonged to his country for centuries. Obama called for China to halt land reclamation and military exercises in the region, saying the activities have inflamed tensions.

Economy

  • Issue: The U.S. wants China to move more aggressively toward a more market-based economy. China wants explicit U.S. support for International Monetary Fund recognition of the yuan as a reserve currency.
  • Agreement: The U.S. said it would support designating the yuan as a reserve currency as long as China meets IMF requirements and if the country makes “further financial and capital market reforms.” Xi pledged further progress to address U.S. and international concerns about China’s economic practices. “The reform and opening up of China will not stop,” he said.
  • Division: Obama’s support for the yuan as a reserve currency came with conditions China may not be willing to meet, and Xi made no specific promises to ease government interventions in his country’s economy.


Human Rights

  • Issue: The U.S. has longstanding concerns that China violates the basic freedoms of its citizens, journalists and non-governmental organizations.
  • Agreement: Very little. Xi did not concede human rights violations by his government. Obama said they would “continue to consult” on the subject.
  • Division: Loads. There were no major announcements on issues such Internet censorship, religious freedom or the treatment of ethnic minorities in China. Chants of protesters gathered in front of the White House could be heard in the Rose Garden as the two presidents spoke.

‘Major Country Relationship’

  • Issue: Xi sought to elevate China as a geopolitical equal with the United States and repeatedly used the term “major country relationship” to describe the interactions. Questions from two members of the Chinese media at the White House news conference both focused on how the U.S. viewed China’s rise and may have been planted or anticipated by the Chinese government: Xi read one of his responses verbatim from a briefing book on his podium.
  • Agreement: Obama praised China as a “powerhouse” and repeated past statements that the U.S. welcomes China’s rise as “a responsible player in global affairs.”

  • Division: Obama did not use Xi’s “major country relationship” phrase and cautioned the Chinese that with greater power comes more responsibility to follow international norms of behavior.

    “P
    art of the deal of being on the world stage when you’re a big country is you’ve got more to do,” Obama said. “My gray hair testifies to that.”
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE