China in Focus #11: Of Summits Past and Present

June 4, 2013 | 3:25 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

President Gerald Ford and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping in 1975. The banner in the background reads “Oppressed People’s of the World Unite!” Image provided courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.

Later this week the presidents of the United States and China will meet in Rancho Mirage, California, not far from the home of the late President Gerald R. Ford. Mr. Obama’s China hands reportedly pushed for the summit in response to Chinese requests for an early meeting between the second-term U.S. president and his new Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, who assumed his duties as President of China in March. The administration is billing the meeting as “a unique and important opportunity. It isn’t.

Jon Huntsman, Obama’s first ambassador to China, characterized the summit as a long overdue opportunity for the two nations to “think big” and develop “a declaration of principles.” His rhetoric echoes calls for a new “G2” that U.S. analysts discussed four years ago just before President Obama’s trip to China. Talk about a new relationship between China and the United States is old news.  Meetings between their respective presidents are important, of course, but no longer exceptional.

Observers from both nations will scrutinize every word and anecdote from the upcoming meeting in Rancho Mirage, looking for signs and symbols that foretell the future of the relationship. U.S. analysts interested in parsing President Xi’s language should exercise caution, however, before drawing lines between Chinese words and future deeds. Deng Xiaoping delivered this enigmatic tirade at the banquet honoring President Ford in 1975:

“At present, a more important question (than the Shanghai Communique of 1972) confronts the Chinese and American peoples—that of the international situation. Our basic view is: There is great disorder under heaven and the situation in excellent. The basic contradictions in the world are sharpening daily. The factors for both revolution and war are clearly increasing. Countries want independence, nations want liberation and the people want revolution—this torrential tide of our time is mounting. In particular, the third world has emerged and grown in strength and has become a force that is playing an important role in the international arena, a force that must not be neglected. On the other hand the contention for world hegemony is intensifying and, strategically, Europe is the focus of this contention. Such continued contention is bound to lead to a new world war. This is independent of man’s will. Today it is the country that most zealously preaches peace that is the most dangerous source of war. Rhetoric about “detente” cannot cover up the stark reality of the growing danger of war.”

Deng’s remarks offer no indication of the remarkable economic reforms he would initiate just a few years later. Taken at face value they read like a contemporary North Korean press release, and suggest Ford was lending U.S. credibility to a revolutionary firebrand excited about the prospect of a third world war. In hindsight, Deng’s toast appears to be a domestic political sop to the Gang-of-Four: a clique of ultra “leftists” led by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, who Deng later arrested and charged with treason. Powerful at the time, Jiang spent the entire reform era in prison and eventually hanged herself in a hospital bathroom in 1991.

In a lengthy and informative essay published just after the visit, New York Times reporter Joseph Lelyveld, predicted the 72-year old Deng would be “a transitional figure.”  James Reston characterized the visit as a matter routine, instructing his readers that “in the age of television no one confuses policy with propaganda” and that “world leaders can meet one another now for their own internal political reasons without their people expecting very much, because there isn’t much to expect.” China law expert Jerome Cohen suggested Ford and Kissinger were using the China visit to solidly the unelected U.S. president’s foreign policy credentials in advance of tough primary challenge from Ronald Reagan.

U.S.-China summits often serve as Rorschach tests, inspiring commentary that says more about the hopes, expectations and concerns of the author than the relationship itself. A former ambassador writes about the perceived need for “a declaration of principals” while another unnamed “senior U.S. official”  claims Obama will offer “a tough and straight conversation with Xi Jinping about our specific concerns,” particularly reported Chinese violations of U.S. cyberspace. China expert Orville Schell hopes the relaxed setting of California will create an opportunity for the two men to get to know each other, even though Xi already met with President Obama during a lengthy U.S. visit just last year.

While it is possible that the meeting will produce a change of heart or mind in one or both men, the foreign policies of the United States and China are unlikely to change. President Obama appears committed to his “pivot” to Asia, which, despite protestations to the contrary, is widely interpreted by U.S. friends and allies in Asia as an attempt to balance Chinese influence, and not, as the Obama administration may have originally intended, to “rebalance” U.S. priorities. China views the policy both as a form of containment and as evidence that the United States is stuck in Cold War era attitudes. Confrontational rhetoric from influential individuals in both nations now shapes the broader elite conversation about the bilateral relationship. It would take something truly extraordinary to change that, something more than a round of golf in a desert resort near Palm Springs.

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security and has consulted with Chinese and U.S. governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the U.S. House China Working Group, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the U.S. National Academies, NASA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.