The Role of Summits in Global Politics

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are meeting this weekend at a private estate in Southern California at an informal summit. It’s the first such meeting between the two leaders since Xi became president of China in March. At the summit, the two leaders emphasized the need for overcoming differences and forging a new, more productive relationship between the two countries. The agenda includes several “areas of tension,” ranging from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to cyber espionage and the status of Chinese political prisoners.

While the summit will likely produce flowery rhetoric from both sides, the real purpose of the summit is to develop greater understanding between the two countries. It’s particularly interesting that this summit is being billed as an “informal meeting” rather than a formal state visit. During a formal state visit, formal dinners are held, military honor guards and parades perform, gifts are exchanged, and cultural ties between the countries are promoted. But the formality of such events often precludes more meaningful, unscripted exchanges between the country’s leaders. Summits on the other hand provide an opportunity for leaders to engage in precisely the kind of frank talks that can lead to more productive outcomes.

As Alan Romberg, Director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center observes, the summit is

clearly aimed at creating a productive working relationship for the long term…Overcoming deeply ingrained suspicion will not be easy. But if policy deliberations at the top are characterized by greater mutual confidence, this can help inform more objective mutual perceptions throughout each system. This would significantly enhance both sides’ ability to handle key problems, not only avoiding and managing crises, but creating positive outcomes across a broad spectrum of issues.

The risk, as Gary Schmitt, Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute notes, is that

the meeting’s real goal is to start building a personal relationship between the two leaders in the hope that it will create momentum for addressing problems of US-China relations in the future. But rarely does statecraft work this way, especially when the disputes between the two countries are not ones of misunderstanding but are, instead, rooted in fundamental differences in history, political systems, and the norms that should guide the international system.

The danger is not that, after two days, the two presidents will not get along personally. The real danger is that, in an effort to get along, they will be less than frank with each other about the actual sources of the problems in the relationship. That’s a recipe for greater, not lesser, problems down the road.

In short, the informal summit appears to be higher-risk, higher-reward strategy to improving US-China relations. If it’s effective, a greater level of US-China cooperation in the global community could help to resolve longstanding tensions in North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere. If it’s unsuccessful, however, it could actually serve to undermine prospects in both the global security situation and in the global economy more broadly.

What do you think? Is the high-risk, high-reward strategy of the informal summit between the United States and China worth it? Will the US-China summit this weekend produce results? Will it fissile out? Will it fail? Take the poll or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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