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Obama Meets Xi: A Chance To Make History


Now, an estate near Palm Springs, California called Sunnylands makes history this weekend. President Obama is meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping there on Friday and Saturday. President Xi only took charge of his country in March, and this summit is only the second time the two men have met. It's an atypical setting. Generally, American and Chinese leaders meet with red carpets and fanfares, all the protocols and procedures of an official visit. This weekend's gathering is much more informal. The leaders of the world's two biggest economies have a rare chance to get to know one another on top of the official business about trades, security and global power.

If you have questions about China, its president or this weekend's summit, call us at 1800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Douglas Paal is vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and he's a member for the Board of Trustees at the Asia Foundation. He joins us from the Carnegie offices in Washington D.C. Welcome to the show.

DOUGLAS PAAL: Thank you. Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Well, starting with the basics, who is Xi Jinping, and how does he differ from previous Chinese leaders?

PAAL: Well, Xi Jinping is a fourth generation leader who is born into what is often referred to as a princeling family. His father was a revolutionary and Communist Party governmental leader in the 1950s through the 1980s after the communists took power in 1949. So he's got a lot of rich experience at the center in China, but he's also a guy who chose to spend a lot of his time outside of Beijing in the provinces, and he comes with a considerable experience in both how to govern in the dirt of China and how to maneuver in the politics of China.

SHAPIRO: And what do we know about what he wants for China's relationship with the U.S.?

PAAL: Well, we don't know that much, but he does have a set of experiences that are not precedented among Chinese leaders. He has come to the U.S. a couple of times. He seems to have had very warm experiences, going twice to Muscatine, Iowa, to visit farm families there. He's got a daughter finishing up at Harvard University this coming year, which is - it's not unusual as it used to be, but it's the example that he's not shying away from us through keeping his family back.

And he's taken, since he's come to office, to party office and military office last year, presidential office this year, a very open-minded approach, and he's appointed a number of people around him who know the United States well, are not inherently inimical to the United States, and in fact, often are quite friendly. And so there's a - between his personal skills and background, and the kinds of people of people he's putting in place, this suggests that there's an opportunity here to sit down and talk about where we go in the 10 years he's likely to be in office, and how much constructive effort can we get into.

SHAPIRO: Now, you've written that this meeting is an opportunity for the two men to make history. And at the same time, you say both sides are trying to lower expectations that any kind of a formal agreement will come out of this meeting. So explain how both can be true.

PAAL: Well, you know, for the last 10 years, the number of meetings between the president of the United States and his counterpart, former leader Hu Jintao, went up every year. I think they met 12 times in the last four years between these two presidents, Obama and Hu Jintao. And yet, with Hu Jintao, you always had a sense that he couldn't get more than an inch away from these talking points. Everything was cooked in advance, and you wouldn't get an impromptu response from him.

And what you definitely get from Xi Jinping as the new leader (unintelligible) is not just glued to his briefing book. Some of it is, are willing to talk out of the box, talk about his own views on things and where to take a particular problem, which kind of path to pursue, to resolve it or to shelve it or to... talk out of the box, talk about his own views on things and where to take a particular problem, which kind of path to pursue to resolve it or to shelve it or to attack it. And I think we're going to see this experiment and the first kind of high-level meeting between these two presidents in about 40 years. Not since Nixon went to see Mao or Kissinger went to see Zhou Enlai have we kind of had this sort of open approach to the agenda.

We all know what the issues are in this field. We know that it's going to be economics, security, non-traditional issues such as cyber-attacks, and they're not going to be avoided. And there are lots of issues that are kind of stale that are not going to move anywhere, but both sides have to reflect on, such as Taiwan and Tibet and - North Korea represents something actively to discuss, trying to invoke from them some new responses that are not just out of the briefing book.

SHAPIRO: I want to get into those substantive issues in a moment, but I think it's also important to drill down into the setting of this place, which, as you say, is so unusual. It's a private golf course, the opportunity, you know, stroll among the desert cactuses and sort of get to know one another?

PAAL: Well, you know, the Annenberg family dedicated this house to be the Western Camp David, and they established a very sort of large fund to manage or to take care of the high expense of keeping the lakes full of water and the golf course nice and green and the house in pristine condition. George. H. W. Bush, the man I served some years ago, entertained then-Japanese Prime Minister Kaifu there. So it's not unprecedented to do it.

But this is - I think it's a particularly good setting because without having the trapping of the White House and all the bells and whistles the Chinese normally seek when they're trying to protect their face when they go into an international meeting, this gives a lot of face. It gives a lot of respect. It shows high-level treatment, but you don't have that structure. You must do this first, stand on the red line, wave from the cameras, wait for the music to stop. The two men can sit down and start talking right away.

SHAPIRO: Now, you've said that nobody expects issues to be resolved at this meeting. But, big picture, what are the issues between the U.S. and China that are most acute, that must be resolved at some point?

PAAL: Well, we've got two big economies that are sort of on separate tracks. We tried to get the Doha Round going, and China and India were on one track, and the industrialized West was on another, and they didn't meet. But we can't have a proliferation of regional and sub-regional free-trade agreements without the rules of trade getting scrambled. And this is an opportunity to say: How do we get back on track to a big, large-scale, free-trade agreement, not the immediate future, but down the road? And what steps do we need to take to get there?

We have the important security issues, which have been dominating the headlines, North Korea and its multiple threats to us and its neighbors. We have the East China Sea, where Japan and China are sparring over the Senkaku or so-called Diaoyu Dao Islands. We have the South China Sea, where the Philippines and Vietnam have been bumping up against the Chinese over who owns what small reefs and rocks and islets. And then we got farther filled with other issues.

SHAPIRO: And I know there's a huge issue with cyber-security, where the U.S. feels very strongly that Chinese interests need to stop snooping in American interests. The Chinese government denies that they have anything to do with this cyber-snooping. How does President Obama broach something like that with the Chinese leader without putting a damper on this sort of feel-good, get-to-know-each-other visit?

PAAL: Clearly, the president's going to say we're concerned about this, and we feel that we've got to get a handle on it. Now, it's gone unnoticed that on Thursday, the United States and China announced that they were going to put together a specialized pair of teams to work on this kind of issue, to get the outlines of what the problem is and work toward some protocols and rules of the road.

We're a long way from getting there, but they're trying to take that track of discussion of cyber - which is very technical, very difficult - and get it out of the way of the blue sky kind of discussion the two leaders are going to have. Yes, they'll both register their positions, but this is going to be left for people who are knowledgeable officials to work on it starting next month.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a call from Jackie in Concord, North Carolina. Hi, Jackie. Go ahead.

JACKIE: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.


JACKIE: I work for a Chinese company, and I travel over there every three months for two weeks at a time, and we supply huge retailers here in the U.S. And I find that they ask lots and lots of questions about what it's like to be here, to live here. They're very curious. And I was wondering if you feel like this trip is sort of part of that, to get to know our true culture more, because they seem incredibly curious about how we live day to day and what we do.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the question, Jackie. Doug Paal?

PAAL: Well, I don't think the ordinary Chinese is going to get much. There's going to be fairly limited press coverage of what takes place. Xi and his wife - who is a very famous singer, Peng Liyuan, a very attractive and popular figure in China - will have a lot of time to interact with the Obama first family at the Palm Springs estate. And this is not the way ordinary Americans live, let me tell you. It's really super-luxurious.


PAAL: So I don't that's going to be the purpose of this visit. But, you know, I think your point is right about China's being curious. We've had a big liberalization in access for tourist visas to the United States, and we're seeing people come. And if you look around at our finest high schools and colleges, you'll see booming numbers of students coming into the American educational system - at their own expense, for the most part, whereas, you know, 15, 20 years ago, it was mostly because we offered them scholarships.

They want to come to school here. They're very interested, and this has an important feedback relationship to the people back in China, because they'll know somebody who's been here. They'll hear stories. Hopefully, they'll be mostly good stories that they take back to China.

SHAPIRO: So given that this is such as informal gathering, how do you measure whether it's a success or not?

PAAL: Well, it'll be a success if the two leaders come out of this and feel they can talk to each other straight, and don't feel that they're being given the cold shoulder or being given a line to walk away with. Some people...

SHAPIRO: We won't necessarily be able to tell whether that's the case though, right?

PAAL: I don't think so. It's going to be hard to - if they have a generally cold and difficult time, I think that'll be noticeable. But seeing these two leaders in office for some time now, I don't expect that's going to happen. I think they're probably going to strike a pretty good note, because I think - in the case of President Obama, you know, having someone you can talk to, is actually talking back to you as a person, is going to be a big plus. And for President Xi, President Obama's, you know, extremely articulate and loquacious.

SHAPIRO: If we were in Beijing having this conversation about the most important priorities for the trip, would the list be the same, or do the Chinese have a different list coming into this?

PAAL: Well, the Chinese have been talking about trying to build a new, great power relationship, and they haven't put much flesh on the bones of what that means. But what they're trying to do is achieve a relationship where China has a bigger say in world affairs and the United States doesn't oppose it. Moreover, we don't do as most rising and resident powers have done throughout history since ancient Greek times, which is go to war with each other.

You know, having a nuclear era makes it a very forbidding thought that we would ever end up in a war with China. And so the question is - of highest priority for the Chinese is: How do we avoid that? Then this question of achieving China's territorial ambitions in the region where they have legacy claims on territory where we have allies who have counterclaims. And that's going to be a big part of it. And, of course, finding some stability in denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula is very high on the agenda.

SHAPIRO: That's Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, speaking with us from their offices in Washington, D.C. about this weekend's meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi. Thanks for talking with us, Doug.

PAAL: You're very welcome.

SHAPIRO: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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