At U.S.-China Summit, Leaders Talk of Avoiding Another Cold War

China’s President Xi Jinping announced that he was looking for the establishment of a “new model of major country relationship” with the United States, as he expressed urgency in taking steps to prevent another Cold War

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Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk as they tour the grounds at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California June 8, 2013.

China’s President Xi Jinping announced that he was looking for the establishment of a “new model of major country relationship” with the United States, as he expressed urgency in taking steps to prevent another Cold War at a carefully orchestrated meeting this weekend with President Obama on isolated 200-acre Sunnylands estate.

“China and the United States must find a new path—one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past,” Xi told reporters Friday after his first session with Obama.

In public statements, President Obama welcomed the effort. “We shared our respective visions for our countries’ futures and agreed that we’re more likely to achieve our objectives of prosperity and security of our people if we are working together cooperatively, rather than engaged in conflict,” Obama said.

The informal meeting on the West Coast instead of a state visit to Washington lacked a specific publicized agenda. Both leaders and their staff eschewed neck ties, and Obama and Xi took a walk around the picturesque property for one-on-one time. The walk culminated in the two chatting while sitting on a California redwood bench that Obama presented Xi for the occasion, inscribed with the dates of their meeting.

But with the Chinese government, informality has its limits. Xi opted for consecutive translation—where he or Obama delivered a sentence and had to wait for it to be translated for the other leader—as opposed to simultaneous translation, which both effectively shortened the meetings and gave Xi more time to formulate his responses to the American president. And while American officials publicly insist the meeting was productive, the conversation in the room often seemed wooden, a byproduct of lingering suspicions. Responding to reporters questions Friday evening, the two leaders appeared to talk across each other on the issue of cybersecurity, which has emerged as one of the most controversial issues between the two nations.

The focus on the Cold War by Xi suggested a sense of urgency from the Chinese leader. “It’s as if in parenthesis he’s saying, ‘If we don’t get this relationship right now, neither of us is going to like what we’re going to have to do next,'” said Chris Johnson, a former China analyst for the CIA and the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

According to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the meetings began Friday afternoon with a high level overview of the two presidents’ priorities and visions for their countries’ futures. Over dinner, in an ornate dining room surrounded with gold and crystal candelabras and sculpture, the two leaders, joined by aides, discussed a range of issues, including North Korea. Following their morning walk, the two leaders sat down again to discuss economic issues and cyber security.

“The discussions were positive and constructive, wide-ranging and quite successful in achieving the goals that we set forth for this meeting,” Donilon said Saturday after Xi had departed the estate.

A highlight of the meeting, according to U.S. officials, was China’s embrace of the U.S. position with respect to North Korea, with Donilon saying the presidents agreed it was a “key area for U.S.-China enhanced cooperation.” They agreed that North Korea must be denuclearized, and agreed on a path forward to apply pressure on the government in Pyongyang, which U.S. officials view as one of China’s first forays stepping in to promote regional calm.

“I think what you have essentially underway here is a shared threat analysis and a shared analysis as to what the implications and impact would be of North Korea pursuing a nuclear weapons program,” Donilon said, adding there was a discussion about further talks with North Korea being “authentic and credible. “We really haven’t seen from the North Koreans at this point that kind of commitment on the substance of potential talks, I think, at this point to move forward,” he said.

Obama also encouraged Xi to deescalate tensions with Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are believed to sit upon oil and gas reserves and are claimed by both countries.

Obama said “that the parties should seek to de-escalate, not escalate; and the parties should seek to have conversations about this through diplomatic channels and not through actions out of the East China Sea,” Donilon told reporters.

Both leaders discussed the importance of strengthening military-to-military ties, which lag diplomatic and economic relations by more than a decade. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, visited China earlier this year, and both leaders pledged to increase the frequency and depth of those interactions to promote stability between the two powers.

While American officials repeatedly said no deliverables would come out of the meeting between the two leaders, Obama and Xi signed off on an agreement to limit the release of Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used as refrigerants and are a potent greenhouse gas. Long in the works, officials hope it is the first step toward cooperation on climate change issues.