TOKYO -- Despite China's trumpeting of the G-20 summit recently held in the country as a great success, President Xi Jinping suffered a serious diplomatic setback as he failed to achieve any progress on his top-priority issue in relations with the U.S.
After he was spurned by U.S. President Barack Obama, Xi's ambitious bid to forge "a new type of great power relationship" between the two countries is fizzling out.
Leaders from the Group of 20 major economies got together for an annual summit in Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province, on Sept. 4-5. It was the first G-20 summit in China.
To ensure blue skies during the two-day international extravaganza, a big moment for Xi, Chinese authorities ordered factories in Hangzhou and surrounding regions to suspend operations completely for up to 16 days. But unfortunately for Chinese authorities, the effort did not pay off. The city of some 9 million people saw slightly cloudy and rainy days on both Sept. 4 and Sept. 5.
Awkward lakeside walk
China wanted to use Obama's visit -- his last to the country as president -- to make the G-20 summit a success. Obama will step down in January, when his second four-year term expires.
On the night of Sept. 3, Xi and Obama took a walk together along the edge of the picturesque West Lake in Hangzhou, an ancient capital that has been called a "paradise on Earth" in China. During the walk, the two leaders sat down to sip Longjing tea, a variety of Chinese green tea also called Dragon Well tea, which is produced near the lake. But they did not look so happy. It was quite natural, because they remained sharply split over many issues, including the South China Sea dispute, during their formal talks and dinner earlier the same day.
The South China Sea row has pitted China against the U.S. and Japan as well as some other Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. China claims large areas of the South China Sea. Although the U.S. and Japan do not claim any islands in the sea, they have harshly denounced China's "militarization" of it as a threat to "freedom of navigation."
But the truth is, the dispute is not Xi's top-priority issue in relations with the U.S.
During his trip to the U.S. in June 2013, Xi formally proposed his "new type of great power relationship" to Obama. What Xi most of all wanted to do in Hangzhou this month was to make significant progress toward the U.S. accepting the proposal.
Xi's high-profile proposal is ambitious, calling for China and the U.S. to respect each other's "core interests" and effectively manage the world jointly. China now regards the South China Sea as a "core interest," along with Taiwan and Tibet. But it has become clear that the proposal will not materialize, at least while Obama is in office, dealing the Chinese president a serious setback.
News reports from China's state-run media have suggested that China and the U.S. made some progress on Xi's proposed relationship, but Obama made no reference to the issue during his Sept. 3 meeting with Xi. Instead, Obama called for the resolution of the South China Sea dispute based on international law and urged Xi to accept the recent ruling on the dispute by an international tribunal.
On July 12, the international tribunal, set up under the auspices of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, handed down a ruling rejecting China's territorial claims, in a case brought by the Philippines.
For Xi, his proposed new U.S.-China relationship is also very important for domestic political reasons. A tug-of-war is expected to intensify between Xi and his political foes over top-level personnel changes to be made at the Communist Party's next national congress, in the fall of 2017.
The Chinese president, who is also at the helm of the Communist Party as its general secretary, wants to play a lead role in forming a new leadership team. To that end, he needs to further consolidate his political position by scoring a diplomatic coup.
But Xi's diplomatic strategy, with a focus on relations with the U.S., has not made as much progress as he wants. If the situation remains unchanged, his much-touted "Chinese dream" of becoming a global power matching the U.S. will also become difficult to realize. Xi must be politically vigilant as he could face criticism, especially from outspoken party elders, for his policy blunder on the issue.
With no significant progress made during his Sept. 3 meeting with Obama, except on the issue of climate change, Xi did not smile during his conversation with the U.S. president, even during their lakeside walk. Obama was also in a similar position.
Shortly before the meeting, the Philippines had disclosed the presence of Chinese dredging ships near the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, raising fresh concern about possible land reclamation by China on the disputed reef.
Under President Obama, the U.S. declared its "return to Asia" and adopted a policy of "rebalancing" toward the region to counter China's growing influence. If Obama had smiled at Xi, U.S. international credibility would have suffered.
Shortly after Obama's Air Force One plane landed at Hangzhou airport on Sept. 3, an unusual incident took place, reflecting the current delicate relations between the U.S. and China.
Chinese security officials imposed undue restrictions on the movements of U.S. officials and reporters traveling with Obama. One male Chinese official attempted to prevent Obama's top national security adviser, Susan Rice, from approaching her boss. The same Chinese official also told reporters to leave.
A female White House official strongly protested to the Chinese official over the order to reporters, but he shouted at her. "This is our country," he said. "This is our airport."
Reporters accompanying a U.S. president on his overseas trips customarily watch him come down the aircraft stairs. When Obama arrived at Hangzhou airport, China had prepared no red-carpeted stairs for him. Therefore, Obama disembarked from Air Force One using the presidential plane's stairs.
China's failure to roll out a red-carpet staircase for Obama was taken by many as a deliberate snub. But China claimed through local media outlets that it did not prepare such a staircase for Obama at the request of the U.S.
At a news conference on Sept. 4, Obama played down the incident.
"I wouldn't over-crank the significance of it, because, as I said, this is not the first time that these things happened," Obama said. "And it doesn't just happen here. It happens in a lot of places, including, by the way, sometimes, our allies."
Obama added, "Part of it is, we also have a much bigger footprint than a lot of other countries. And we've got a lot of planes and a lot of helicopters and a lot of cars and a lot of guys, and if you're a host country, sometimes it may feel a little bit much."
The truth about the testy exchanges between U.S. and Chinese officials is still unclear. But what is clear is that the unusual incident reflects the current delicate relations between the two countries.
As for what happened to Susan Rice at Hangzhou airport, one source said later, "It seems that local security officials did not know Rice, a close aide to Obama. It is regrettable that the G-20 summit was overshadowed by a trivial topic like this. It is a serious fiasco."
Chinese authorities took extensive measures, in a highhanded manner, to make the G-20 summit a success.
Some of the factories that were ordered to suspend operations were only given short notice, and they cannot get any compensation for the sizable economic losses resulting from their temporary closure. In a democratic country, this would inevitably result in lawsuits filed against the national government.
Chinese authorities also took tight security measures. The area surrounding the scenic West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was almost completely sealed off to ordinary people during the two-day powwow.
A massive show was staged at the lake to entertain G-20 leaders. But regular citizens had no chance to watch the gala, which also included a fireworks display, even as a huge amount of money was spent on it.
People in the usually bustling city were given weeklong vacations and encouraged to go somewhere else temporarily. "Everything is (done) for the supreme leader," one Hangzhou resident grumbled. "This is a Chinese emperor's idea."
In addition to meeting Obama, Xi also held a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sept. 5, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit.
Xi did not welcome Abe as a guest from the bottom of his heart. But he agreed to hold talks with Abe, the leader of a neighboring power, because doing so was necessary to make the summit a success. That is one of the reasons why the Xi-Abe meeting was rather short on substance, failing to reach many important agreements.
The summit was a big event by Xi, and for Xi. As the host nation, China blew its own trumpet and called the gathering "a great success."
But in an unpleasant development for Xi, North Korea test-fired three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Sept. 5. The launch on the closing day of the G-20 summit came despite progress made recently toward improved ties between Beijing and Pyongyang.
Xi probably took the North Korean missile launch as a snub. As this shows, the international situation surrounding China remains tough.