Australian experts express cautious optimism over summit between Xi, Obama
                 English.news.cn | 2013-06-08 10:14:35 | Editor: Mengjie

by Christian Edwards

SYDNEY, June 8 (Xinhua) -- Around the world, and certainly across Australia, all eyes have turned to an isolated estate in California, the United States, for the so-called "shirt-sleeves" summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama.

Australia enjoys a privileged position among the two countries, being a stringent U.S. ally - the only nation to follow the Americans into every foreign war of the 21st century, while also developing a dependence upon China as its most important economic partner.

Dr James Reilly is a lecturer in Northeast Asian Politics at the University of Sydney who sees Australia is more invested than most in the smooth handling of the world's most important bilateral relationship, but must resist the temptation as has been often floated here of influencing either side.

"I think Australia's capacity to be a bridge between the two can be vastly over exaggerated. Yes, it is in Australia's fundamental national interest that they have a stable, constructive relationship - but today both countries have a complex, extremely broad set of institutions that have regular interaction across all levels of government from the very highest on down to the working level," he said.

As the single most important global relationship they have constant discussions and interact a lot --- so the idea that Australia has a role to play here is, to be frank, a little bit of hubris, said Reilly, adding that Australia can certainly feel encouraged, but that's about it.

The massive, 200-acre Sunnylands estate in the Mojave desert, California, will play host to arguably the two most powerful men in the world.

Xi arrived in California earlier this week following a whirlwind trip through Latin America.

The two leaders planned to hold a private meeting in the evening followed by a private working dinner, with their discussions to resume Saturday morning.

Tellingly, President Obama gave a nod to China's challenges and achievements at a Democratic Fund-raiser earlier this week, suggesting that this would be a meeting that sought understanding rather than concrete results.

"The transformation that's taking place in China is extraordinary. And never in the history of humanity have we seen so many people move out of poverty so rapidly... And yet, when you look at the challenges they face and you look at the challenges we face, I'll take our challenges any day of the week," he said.

While much has been said of the summit's informality as an opportunity to build a personal rapport, one of Australia's most respected experts on global security say the systems and institutions already in place as well as the demands of national interest - will dictate the relationship's evolution.

Alan Dupont, a professor of international security at the University of New South Wales and a non resident fellow at the thinktank the Lowy Institute, has worked on Asian security issues for over 35 years both in government and academia. He told Xinhua of his cautious optimism.

"There are so many common interests now and such an inter- dependence between the two that everything they do has a cost- benefit aspect in a way that wasn't apparent previously, so that augurs well in structural terms for a workable relationship.

"Yes, there are a lot of disputations, controversy, disagreements - but overwhelmingly the dynamic is towards being able to manage the relationship because it's in the interest of both to do so."

For the first time, according to Dupont, there is a genuine and growing cross-national understanding that will consolidate the relationship, regardless of developments.

"There are now considerable group of U.S. 'China experts' living in China and vice versa a lot of Chinese 'U.S. experts' in the States who meet now on a regular basis and have very frank exchange of views, and it's quite sophisticated. In my view this is quite a positive development there's a much better understanding of each other's society than we've seen at any time in the modern era - that must help in consolidating ideas and putting realistic limits on key issues."

However, Dupont said the value of a personal relationship could be overstated.

"Liking each other can only go so far," he said.

"I think Xi and Obama will come to understand each other a little better but there are serious and real differences in national perspectives and they both have very powerful national constituencies that limit what they can say and do.

"Hopefully there is a level of personal trust that could be valuable but how much that will lead to change in policy outcomes is unclear."

Dupont told Xinhua that while having a good relationship with intra-governmental counterparts certainly helps, it's "how both countries respond to the other's complaints and how far they can push the relationship despite opposition from conservatives at home."

"There is rule of scope for the development of a personal relationship but I wouldn't overplay the significance - because at the end of the day, even if it does occur, both countries must make hard-nosed calculations of national interest," he said.

Much has been made of President Xi, who took office in March, and his symbolic ascension as an inter-generational leadership.

Xi boasts a broader knowledge and so far has displayed an obvious ease with the strictures of the 24 hour news cycle and the demands of public and political protocols.

Obama is perhaps under more domestic pressure than his counterpart, according to Reilly, who says that cyber security will top the agenda for Obama who has been rattled by criticism and pressure "in that regard for not being forthright enough."

When it comes to Asia, Reilly said territorial disputes and the opaque American claim to be pivoting once again toward the region would be spelled out, rather than discussed.

Australians well recall that in November 2011, Obama announced his "pivot" towards Asia, in a speech to Canberra's Parliament House that sent shivers down strategic spines across the country.

The U.S. went on to deploy 2,500 Marines in Darwin, while Obama announced U.S. intentions to "shore up" alliances in Asia and effectively escalating military tensions in the region.

Reilly said this meeting would allow the other to state a position, rather than negotiate a new one.

"Most likely Obama will try to say this is what the pivot is: we're rebalancing; re-engaging; we're not trying to contain China; not trying to threaten China - he'll use that kind of language... Xi has a similar objective: that China has legitimate objectives; it seeks only to defend; does not want to threaten anybody; doesn' t want to be the aggressor in the region, but has very much legitimate clams to pursue."

Would this be the future shape of U.S.Chinese diplomacy? Alan Dupont suggests observers would be wise to keep a level head.

"Can I resist the temptation? In the heat of the moment it's very easy to write these meetings up as some sort of watershed they're important; they're part of the incremental growth of the relationship but it would be mistake to read too much into them," the Lowy Visiting Fellow told Xinhua.

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