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Maritime security rift proves summit fizzled

TOKYO -- When national leaders hold official talks, usually the first thing they think about is what kind of joint report they will make. If a country invites a leader as a state guest, the document takes on even greater importance. In that sense, Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the U.S. in late September was unusual.     

     After Xi met with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 25, the two released a joint report on measures against global warming, among other topics. What they did not do, however, was adopt a joint statement.

     Instead, Washington and Beijing issued separate lists of achievements made at the meeting. The intention was to tout their individual accomplishments, but what stands out more than the content itself is the fact that the lists are so different.

Glaring omission     

In its report, China placed the establishment of "a new model of major-country relationship" at the top of the list. But that language does not appear on the U.S. list because, according to a U.S. government source, the Obama administration decided back in spring of 2014 not to use the phrase. That is because to China, that new relationship means one of equals.

     The differences revealed in the lists were telling, but not enough to conclude that the summit was a failure. The U.S. and China almost certainly checked each other's lists before the talks, so they went into the meeting fully aware of their mutual differences.

     A U.S. security expert close to the Obama administration said Washington has no intention of accepting China's "new model" concept, and has decided to simply not acknowledge it rather than reject it outright.

     What made the summit a dud, then, was the fact that neither list addressed the urgent issue of maritime security.

     China has been reclaiming land on reefs in the South China Sea to build military facilities. Obama has faced fierce pressure from Congress for what critics have called his weak-kneed responses to the issue. Washington's reactions to China's maritime activities may have given many Asian nations the impression that the U.S. is an unreliable ally.

     Perhaps to address such perceptions, Obama expressed strong concerns over the South China Sea issue during both the summit and at a joint press conference.

     But Xi held firm. "Islands in the South China Sea since ancient times are China's territory," he said. "We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests."

     China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and believes that the country is free to do whatever it wants with the reefs. As such, so one expected Xi to promise to stop China's reclamation activities.

     That said, he has publicly stated that the country is committed to respecting and upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight that countries enjoy according to international law. Why, then, didn't the two leaders at least confirm this principle at their meeting and place it on their respective lists of achievements? This glaring omission suggests the conversations were hostile.  

     As for the issue of cyberspying, another focal point of the talks, both countries included on their lists plans for holding ministerial-level dialogue and establishing an emergency hotline.

     Ahead of the summit, however, the two governments held tense negotiations on the matter, with the U.S. providing evidence allegedly proving that Chinese companies have been engaged in cyberspying. Nevertheless, China maintains that no such espionage has occurred. In that sense, ministerial-level dialogue will do nothing more than postpone a resolution to the problem.

Xi digs in

So why did the summit sputter so badly? In a nutshell, it is because Xi was defiant, thinking he did not need to make concessions to the U.S. to achieve a successful visit.    

     The situation was completely different when former Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the U.S. in 2011. A diplomatic source said that at the time, the countries were divided over the wording on North Korean issues when preparing their joint statement. When the U.S. told China it would shelve the statement if China did not make adjustments, China, desperate to avoid any action that would damage the success of Hu's visit, compromised and a joint statement was compiled.

     But Xi took a different approach. Perhaps he believed that the shrinking gap in national power between the two countries means Beijing does not have to bend as much to Washington's will.

     Past U.S. governments sought to make China a partner by deepening their relationship. The Obama-Xi summit proves that this diplomatic approach is failing.

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