A summit that gives hopeIn a black-and-white photo, two men gaze at one another with hands tightly grasped. They are Chinese leader Mao Zedong and U.S. President Richard Nixon performing the handshake on Feb. 21, 1972 that “changed the world,” opening a new chapter in the relations of the United States and China, two countries that had stood at the far ends of the ideological axis during the Cold War.
A very recent photograph, this one in color, showed the two leaders of the same countries - Barack Obama and Xi Jinping - in the informal setting of the Sunnylands estate outside Palm Springs, California dressed in casual wear rather than formal suits. They exchanged relaxed conversation during talks over the weekend, in a sharp departure from the tense formalities of the past. That certainly constituted symbolism of a new beginning between the U.S. and China, and perhaps it really will lead to a more comfortable partnership between the world’s two largest economies.
Some four decades ago, Nixon brought along several strains of sequoia trees as gifts to his Chinese hosts. Obama prepared an equally unusual gift for his visiting Chinese counterpart in their first summit - a custom-built bench made from the wood of a California redwood tree. The Chinese media was abuzz about the photo of the smiling leaders seated on the same bench symbolizing a “shortened distance” between the two nations.
Last weekend’s summit between the American and Chinese leaders was unprecedented in many ways. From the venue to the dress code, it was scrupulously informal with an aim to develop a closer and heartier relationship between the two leaders. Between scheduled meetings and meals, the two leaders took a stroll and spent nearly eight hours in one another’s company during Xi’s one-night stay in California.
If their primary purpose was to forge a personal relationship through the one-on-one summit in Sunnylands, both succeeded magnificently. Unlike his predecessor, the fifth-generation leader of China appeared relaxed and confident in the carefree and unscripted setting. Xi clearly distinguished himself from that predecessor, the reliably wooden Hu Jintao.
Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University who visited Seoul last week, expanded on his book “No One’s World” arguing that the world is headed for political and ideological diversity with no predominance by a single country like the U.S. and China.
The power of the U.S. is waning and that of China rising. But regardless of its wealth and immense population, China won’t likely enjoy the past superpower status of the U.S. A cooperative and mutually understanding Sino-U.S. relationship would benefit the two - as well as the rest of the world - far more than rivalry and confrontation. The two countries must seek a common win-win path. That is in line with Chinas’s so-called “new model” of major power relationships, divorced from the “inevitable confrontation and conflict” of the past.
During their talks in casual California, Obama and Xi spent a good amount of time on the topic of a nuclear-armed North Korea. North Korea dominated their conversation during Friday’s working dinner, at which Xi opened up a bottle of Maotai, the famously fiery Chinese liquor.
U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said that during the “lengthy discussion about North Korea,” the two leaders agreed that “North Korea has to denuclearize; Neither country will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and both countries will work together to deepen their cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization.”
Donilon said the two leaders achieved “quite a bit of alignment” to put pressure and work together to denuclearize North Korea. Pyongyang inevitably will be uneasy at any “common ground” its sole diplomatic and trade ally finds with the U.S., particularly on its nuclear status.
It’s too early to declare that China has totally altered its time-honored relationship with North Korea. The poor communist nation still remains China’s leverage on the global stage. China cannot push North Korea into any corner and jeopardize the dynastic regime as there are limits to the extent Beijing can twist Pyongyang’s arm. We don’t really know what the U.S. and Chinese leaders decided about North Korea during their talks. We have to wait and see what actions the two countries follow through to “achieve denuclearization.”
But the symbolic alignment itself serves as a new type of pressure on Pyongyang. A day before the scheduled summit, North Korea suddenly proposed dialogue with South Korea. Seoul should not miss the opportunity. During the high-level talks, Seoul must seek ways to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula and mend the inter-Korean relationship.
President Park Geun-hye’s trust-building process should be in sync with the Sino-U.S. efforts on denuclearization. The momentum should be built for a turning point to new Washington-Beijing relationship as well as on the peninsula. It’s all up to the will and capabilities of the Park Geun-hye administration to capitalize on this historic momentum.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok