Friday April 3, 2020


June 14, 2013

An unprecedented low-key summit was held on June 7-8 between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands estate in California. The meetings—which spanned approximately eight hours in total—were designed to be informal, in an effort to provide the two leaders with an opportunity to develop a personal relationship and discuss key issues outside of the pressures of a formal state visit.

Many U.S.-based China scholars expressed a hope and the need for these meetings to allow the two sides to define a positive framework for U.S.-China relations. Xinhua similarly stated the key goal for the summit was to determine “how to build a new paradigm of relationship between two major powers.”  This reflection of the Chinese government’s emphasis on the development of a “new great power relationship,” refers to the historical incidence of rising powers violently disrupting the status quo. Some in the U.S. have expressed concern regarding China’s push of this concept, fearing it will be used as a means to press for U.S. respect of China’s core interests.

Both Chinese and Western media noted disappointment that Michelle Obama did not attend the summit (as Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, was in attendance), with some hoping the two women could establish their own global initiative through so-called “first lady diplomacy”. Despite her absence, U.S. officials said it had been made clear to the Chinese side early on that a scheduling conflict would prevent Mrs. Obama from attending the summit. Prior to the meetings, China appeared to offer a few goodwill gestures by releasing U.S. businessman Hu Zhicheng, who had been banned from leaving China despite the dropping of commercial theft charges against him, and issuing passports to the mother and brother of exiled human rights activist Chen Guangcheng.

The first meeting of the summit began with both leaders discussing their priorities for their own countries, both domestically and internationally, to provide context for the more strategic focus of discussions held in the second meeting. Regarding cyber espionage, Obama emphasized the economic threat posed by cyber-enabled economic espionage, in which intellectual and other property are stolen through cyber attacks. The New York Times reported that Obama and Xi appeared eager to redefine relations between the two countries in a way that would allow them to overlook their differences and not let individual issues derail progress across the entire spectrum of U.S.-China relations.

During the summit, Xi suggested the development of a “new type” of relations between the U.S. and China, described in three phases: “no conflict and confrontation”, “mutual respect”, and “cooperation toward win-win results”. Additionally, Xi laid out a four-point proposal which emphasized:  1) the need for the two sides to elevate the level of dialogue and institutionalize the meetings held between the two sides at multilateral venues; 2) Washington should take active steps to relax restrictions on hi-tech exports to China; 3) the two sides need to maintain close coordination and collaboration on hotspot issues such as the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan, piracy, transnational crimes, peacekeeping tasks, disaster relief, cyber security, climate change, and space security; and 4) the two sides need to find a new way to manage their differences and actively foster a new type of military relations in accordance with the new type of inter-power ties.

According to Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, the two leaders were able to increase mutual trust, reach consensus on an array of issues, and map out a blueprint for U.S.-China ties through the summit, signaling the opening of a new chapter in U.S.-China cooperation. Similarly, Chinese media reports presented a positive outlook of the summit, remarking that it set a positive tone for the future development of bilateral relations.

According to Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, the discussions were strategic in nature and covered most aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, including economics, security, cyber- attacks, and North Korea. Donilon further emphasized the importance of the timing of the meetings—at the outset of Obama’s second term and Xi’s tenure as president, and as the culmination of a recent succession of high level visits between the two countries following their appointments.

One concrete area in which Obama and Xi were able to reach agreement during the summit was on the phasing out of the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbon gases. This agreement is seen as a small step following the formation of a U.S.-China climate change working group in April, which will develop a number of new proposals at the next U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July.

While it will remain to be seen whether or not the summit has resulted in strengthening ties between Obama and Xi—particularly in a way that will concretely improve U.S.-China relations—the very reality of this new kind of summit itself is a result of changing dynamics in Sino-U.S. relations.


For further information on the Sunnylands Summit, please see the following news sources:

Carnegie-Tsinghua – Moving Beyond the Script at the U.S.-China Summit

Global Times – Sino-US confrontation lose-lose result

The National Interest – Nothing New About China’s New Concept

The New York Times – U.S.-China Meeting’s Aim: Personal Diplomacy

The New Yorker – Summit Psychology: Obama and Xi in the Desert

Reuters – China’s ‘first lady’ Peng avoids California limelight

Reuters – U.S.-China climate deal called ‘breakthrough’ but no long-term cuts yet

Wall Street Journal – An Insider’s Guide to ‘Shirt-Sleeves Summit’

White House – Remarks by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China Before Bilateral Meeting

White House – Press Briefing by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon

Xinhua – Interview: Xi-Obama summit successfully reaffirms U.S.-China ties: Brzezinki

Full Xinhua coverage of Xi-Obama summit –


For Chinese language commentary on the Sunnylands Summit, please see the following news sources: (中国网) – 习奥会后,美国能否由帮券转向劝架

CNTV (中国网络电视台) – 习近平同美国总统奥巴马共同会见记者

CNTV (中国网络电视台) – 习近平同美国总统奥巴马举行中美元首会晤

Sina Video (新浪视频) – 习近平访美会晤奥巴马

Sina Video (新浪视频) – 奥巴马称中国繁荣是美国利益所在


Compiled and edited by Catherine Beck.