The best you can say about the 44-Xi summit was that it happened. The fact that these two leaders both traveled a few thousand miles to see each other in lovely southern California surroundings and then spent hours and hours just yakking has to go down in the history books as, well, “historic.”
The worst you can say, though, is they may not have accomplished all that much despite the outpouring of polite phrases — and 44’ s judgement that the whole show was, in that oft-used word of exuberance, “terrific.” 44 spent a lot of time getting quite specific on the crimes of cyber espionage and cyber theft that the Americans accuse the Chinese of committing, and Xi and his top aides were equally firm in politely saying the whole problem was overblown and others, meaning the Americans mostly, were also guilty.
As for North Korea, no doubt Chinese pressure, at long last, seems to have been effective in getting them to see the light and abandon the “state of war” that they were saying earlier this year had already engulfed the Korean peninsula.
Certainly North Korea would not have reopened the hotline across the demilitarized zone at the “truce village” of Panmunjom if the Chinese had seemed at all eager to go along with the North’s absurd rhetoric. Nor would North and South Koreans have been meeting at Panmunjom to talk about reopening the economic zone at Kaesong, right next to Panmunjom, if the Chinese hadn’t gotten across the message that closing it was not a good idea for an economy in a perpetual state of failure.
The Chinese, it seems, weren’t interested in finding jobs for the 53,000 North Korean workers who got laid off when the North ordered the suspension of the zone in a fit of pique over claims that Pyongyang needed Kaesong for all the money it was making from the South Korean companies with factories there. Nor did the Chinese want to invest in their own enterprises in the North if war really was in danger of breaking out as the North was claiming.
But all that was decided on before 44 and Xi exchanged their first heartfelt greetings at Sunnylands. They could have skipped the meeting entirely, and the North Koreans would still have been stepping back from their seemingly intractable positions. No doubt it was no coincidence that the North agreed to meet the South the day after 44 and Xi wrapped up their talks, but they’d have gone there anyway. So weak was their position that they could not even stick by their earlier demand to hold the talks at Kaesong — that is, on their side of the line rather than in the DMZ.
What may have been as noteworthy as what was said during and after the Obama-Xi talks was what was not said. Did 44 press the issue of China’s claims to “sovereignty” over the South China Sea? And did he raise the topic of China’s insistence on challenging Japanese control over those disputed islets that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese say are the Diaoyu? It might be easy to say the latter is between Japan and China, not the U.S., but hasn’t the U.S. pledged to defend the islets under terms of the U.S.-Japan security treaty?
No doubt 44 and Xi were thinking of all that when 44 talked of the need for “protocols” on “military issues.” Perhaps that most diplomatic turn of phrase was by way of saying U.S. warships have the right to go into the South China Sea any time, that the Chinese don’t own the sea and the issue is not that of ”sovereignty.”
No sooner were the talks over than Chinese commentators were on CCTV, China Central Television, talking optimistically about the meaning of the summit but saying, of course, everyone had to understand China’s right to the South China Sea.
The most positive meaning of “protocols” seems to be that China won’t disturb “foreign” ships in those waters while still maintaining its claim — and, of course, won’t for a moment consider compromise on the islands that it already holds, the Paracels, claimed by Vietnam, and some of the Spratlys. As for the Senkakus, the best one can hope for is the Japanese won’t start using real cannon rather than water cannon to drive off intruding Chinese fishing boats and research vessels and the Chinese won’t open fire from the planes they’ve sent over from time to time.
Come to think of it, that kind of outcome might not be too bad. If the American and Chinese presidents didn’t really change much of anything, at least they may have kept matters from getting worse — all of which historians will want to contemplate if future leaders some day reverse course and talk tough instead of nice.
Pic - "Remained Sharply Divided"