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News / Nation & World

Obama’s task in China is delicate

Relationship with Xi not enough to ease all tensions

The Columbian
Published: November 12, 2014, 12:00am

BEIJING — When Xi Jinping took the reins of a booming China two years ago, President Barack Obama saw an opportunity to remake America’s relationship with the Asian power. But even after Obama’s unusually robust efforts to forge personal ties with Xi, the two leaders are meeting in Beijing amid significant tensions, both old and new.

Xi has consolidated power since taking office, deepened China’s provocative maritime disputes with its neighbors and stands accused of continuing cyberattacks against the United States. U.S. officials have new concerns over the potential for a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and are warily watching Beijing strengthen ties with Moscow as the West distances itself from Russia.

For its part, Beijing suspects Obama’s intentions in Asia, seeing his efforts to bolster U.S. economic ties in the region as a way of countering China’s rise. Obama’s domestic political weakness, particularly following the Democrats’ defeats in last week’s midterm elections, has also sparked questions in China about whether the U.S. president can deliver on potential international agreements.

The leaders planned morning meetings today at the Great Hall of the People, a surprising last-minute addition to the schedule given China’s tight media controls.

As they met for a private dinner Tuesday, Obama declared he wanted to take U.S.-China relations to a “new level.” The dinner lasted five hours — two hours longer than scheduled — and White House officials called it “very worthwhile and useful.”

In the lead-up to the Obama-Xi meetings, U.S. officials sought to refocus attention on areas of U.S. agreement with the Chinese. The two countries announced a reciprocal accord to extend visa lengths for their citizens. And Obama announced that the U.S. and China had reached an understanding that would allow negotiations to move forward on a deal with the World Trade Organization to reduce tariffs on high-tech goods.

U.S. officials said the two were also likely to announce progress on deals to avert military confrontations in the Pacific, where their aircraft have come near each other. Officials have also been working on possible announcements on climate change to set the stage for a summit in Paris early next year. The U.S. has been pressing China to set an ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and Beijing appears to be getting serious about it — a shift for China, which long argued that developed countries like the U.S. bore most of the responsibility to deal with climate change.

But despite the White House’s public focus on cooperation, analysts say Xi’s approach to running China is likely to lead to more tensions ahead.

That’s hardly the landscape Obama envisioned when he began trying to cultivate Xi as partner. Obama had developed little personal rapport with Xi’s predecessor, the older and more formal Hu Jintao. But in Xi, U.S. officials saw a potentially new kind of leader, with closer ties to the U.S. than other Chinese officials — he spent time in Iowa as an exchange student.

In an unusual move, Obama last summer invited Xi to a two-day retreat at Sunnylands, a sweeping California estate, where the leaders held eight hours of wide-ranging talks.

Both sides considered the summit a success. Yet the months that followed have seen increased tensions, from the U.S. levying cyberspying charges against five Chinese officials to a recent series of close calls between U.S. and Chinese aircraft in the Pacific.

“There’s no mystery in our position on these issues, there’s no mystery on the Chinese position,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “When there’s an opening, we take it, and we run through that opening, we work together. And when there’s a difference, we’re just going to keep raising it repeatedly with China.”