This weekend’s summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California has been the subject of much media attention and outside analysis. The buzz had as much to do with the style of the meeting as the substance. President Xi reportedly asked to meet face-to-face with President Obama without the usual talking points, and President Obama obliged by proposing a venue outside the protocol-conscious environs of Washington, D.C.
Amid the plush surroundings of the Sunnylands estate, both leaders had two days to hash out differences over cyber-security and human rights as well as to discuss other matters of strategic and economic concern to their nations. The informal settings were also designed to develop some degree of personal chemistry between the two leaders that could lead to smoother diplomatic ties in the long run.
This style of summitry is in marked contrast to the recent bilateral meetings held between President Obama and his counterparts in Japan, America’s key ally in Asia. From the outset of Obama’s presidency, Japanese prime ministers have made a point of being the first in line among world leaders to meet with him at the White House. In February 2009, then Prime Minister Taro Aso traveled some 8,000 miles to claim this honor in a one-hour meet-and-greet with the newly sworn-in president. Expectations of the visit were exceedingly low, as Obama’s foreign policy team was not yet in place.
Subsequent prime ministers – and there have been seven in the past six years – have placed a meeting with the U.S. president at the very top of their political schedules. Shinzo Abe pushed for an official visit to Washington in January, just weeks after being reelected for his second stint as prime minister. Tokyo’s proposed dates also roughly coincided with Obama’s second inauguration. The White House tried to stall for time, but eventually agreed to a meeting with Prime Minister Abe in late February – critically, for Tokyo, before South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s visit to Washington in May.
The Abe-Obama meeting, however, stands out as one of the most awkward in recent memory. Abe was hoping to get a strong statement from the White House defending Japan’s position in territorial disputes with China while Obama was hoping for a commitment from Tokyo to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Both leaders got less than they wanted – an oblique reference from Obama about the importance of maintaining the status quo in Asia and a semantically tortured joint statement citing Japan’s willingness to consider joining the TPP if certain conditions were met. It is debatable whether that outcome was enough to justify the jet fuel and motorcade traffic involved in pulling the summit off.
The hasty preparation for the Abe-Obama meeting came at a cost. Far from establishing a rapport between the two leaders, there was neither the time nor the opportunity to develop any kind of chemistry between them. As veteran Japan watcher Peter Ennis observes, Obama kept Abe at arm’s length, in part to avoid giving the prime minister a prominent stage to provoke China – not even taking the time to issue a joint press conference following their meeting. That is a pity, as Obama has taken to leaders, like former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who have spent the effort to get to know him.