Features | Politics | East Asia

Summit Success: More Than Just Being First in Line

The weekend’s Xi-Obama summit may be an example for Japanese leaders overly hasty to meet a U.S. president.

By Weston S. Konishi for

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.

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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.

The bilateral summits in between the Aso and Abe visits have been even less remarkable, leading to the question of whether shuttle summitry is useful at all. Japanese prime ministers’ proclivity for being first in line to meet the president may ensure that they leave the White House empty handed, and vice versa. That is why the Xi-Obama summit at Sunnylands may stand a chance of making history instead of being lost in it.  

To be fair, bilateral summits typically carry more weight in Tokyo than in Washington, where the president meets with a dizzying number of world leaders on a regular basis. Face time with the U.S. president, on the other hand, can give a newly appointed prime minister in Tokyo instant prestige as a world leader and much-valued political clout at home, which explains the often photo-op nature of Japanese political visits to Washington.

But that has not always been the case. One of the most successful U.S.-Japan summits was the first one-on-one meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush held at Camp David in June 2001. Unlike the more recent pattern of visits, Koizumi’s visit to Washington was propitiously timed, occurring well after Bush had assembled a strong team of Asia hands in his administration.  

This approach paid off. Both leaders got along famously, even engaging in a game of catch that gave the meeting an air of spontaneity (given that it seemed unlikely that Koizumi had thought to pack his baseball mitt before leaving his official residence in Tokyo). The truth is that White House officials and their counterparts in Tokyo had worked painstakingly to set the stage and create an environment for the two leaders to bond. The result was one of the closest bilateral friendships since the “Ron-Yasu” partnership between former President Ronald Reagan and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. That good feeling trickled down to closer working-level cooperation across a wide range of global challenges.

A similar approach – and outcome – is what is hoped for from the Xi-Obama meeting this weekend. If that meeting was about anything, it was about creating a degree of trust and familiarity between the two leaders that will allow them to tackle the challenges of the day in a more direct and productive manner. Xi may not have scrambled to meet Obama right off the bat, but holding back until the time was right may in the end yield greater results than those who did.

Weston S. Konishi is director of Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA) in Washington, DC.