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What did and didn’t get done at the U.S.-China White House summit

September 25, 2015 at 6:25 PM EST
Climate change was one area of agreement between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, but the leaders made little headway on human rights and a South China Sea territory dispute. Judy Woodruff talks with Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Susan Shirk of University of California, San Diego.

For more on what they might and might not be discussing at that dinner, I’m joined by John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago and former Air Force officer. Susan Shirk, she was a deputy assistant secretary of state for China in the Clinton administration. She now chairs the 21st Century China Program at the University of California, San Diego. And Christopher Johnson, a senior adviser who closely watches China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Welcome, all three, to the program.

Let’s talk first about what was accomplished, China signing on to this climate change agreement, so-called cap-and-trade system, Susan Shirk, wherein they limit how much an industry can pollute. How significant is this?

SUSAN SHIRK, University of California, San Diego: Well, it’s very significant because air pollution has become a domestic political problem in China.

And the Chinese leadership has, therefore, gotten very serious about its commitments on climate change, because these two issues are very much related. And to see China and the United States both making strong commitments on climate change going into the U.N. climate summit…


SUSAN SHIRK: … in December is — sends a message that the two countries can cooperate when their interests are as aligned as this one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christopher Johnson, you see it as important?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Absolutely. I think so.

And, as Susan pointed out, the sort of message it sends for the Paris conference is really the important piece here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Mearsheimer, what would you add on that?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: I agree, but this was the easy one.

The problem is that there are a number of different issues here that really matter, some more than this, and on a lot of those issues, not much progress was expected or made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we want to get to those.

But I do want to ask you about cyber-spying, John Mearsheimer. The agreement they said they have made to clamp down on cyber-spying, an agreement on the theft of intellectual property, how important is all that?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, it’s very important to emphasize that there was no agreement on what one might call traditional spying via cyber, so we can continue to spy on them in the national security realm, and they can continue to spy on us.

But where there was an agreement is on the economic front, and they were obviously stealing lots of our economic secrets, and we were not stealing hardly any of theirs, and the end result is that the agreement they came up with, if they can enforce it, will be a good agreement for the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christopher Johnson, how do you see that?


I think that the main value in the agreement really is that it starts to put some parameters around the discussion. And I think what will see next, From the U.S. point of view, is that when we have evidence — and we will have evidence — of this economic espionage, we will then go to the Chinese and say, under your commitments of this new agreement, we expect to see prosecutions on your side. And if those don’t happen, then we will move to sanction those firms or individuals that have been involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Shirk, what about the areas now where they didn’t make much headway, China’s territorial ambitions, human rights? Was much expected was going to happen in those areas anyway?

SUSAN SHIRK: No, I don’t think we expected much to happen, and not much did.

On the — China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, Xi Jinping has become so strongly invested in those issues as a focal point of domestic nationalism, and it’s a great way for him to get people to rally around the flag and rally around him at a time when the economy is growing more slowly, there are potential domestic discontents.

So, it’s just too attractive a kind of — it leads to tension with your neighbors and tension with the U.S., but it works for Him at home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Mearsheimer, so how much of a problem is it for the United States, for U.S. allies like Japan, Vietnam, that they didn’t get much done in that area?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, the South China Sea is a huge problem for the United States, because our credibility in the region really matters, and it’s at stake in this particular case.

The Japanese are watching us very carefully, because the Japanese depend on us for security, and it’s our nuclear umbrella that’s over their heads, so they want to know how tough we’re going to be with the Chinese if the Chinese begin to push. And the Chinese are pushing in the South China Sea.

They have very ambitious goals, and the United States has really not drawn any lines in the sand up to this point. And I think at some point, we’re going to have to do that, and I think it’s going to get very messy at that time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christopher Johnson, is the U.S. any closer to drawing a line?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: I think we’re getting there. I think we’re getting there.

But it’s important that when we think about what China is doing in the South China Sea, as John was suggesting, we have to think about it in the broader context of China’s broader maritime strategy that is emerging.

And the message they’re sending to the region and to the United States is, effectively, our forces will operate at times of our choosing, perhaps even with impunity, in this area out to the so-called Second Island Chain of Guam, and the rest of you have to accept it. And if you don’t want to accept it, we care more about this space than you do.

And the Chinese are trying to get, for the first time in their history, some maritime strategic depth around their country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s — let’s broaden this out, Susan Shirk. the relationship between the two men, let’s — overall China-U.S. relations, are they any better coming out of these two days of meetings, do you believe?


SUSAN SHIRK: They’re not any worse.

I wouldn’t say this was a home run kind of summit, as — last November, we had a summit in Beijing where the two leaders made some — three sets of very substantive agreements. And Xi Jinping, because he was the host then, he really bent over backwards to make that a successful summit. Here, he was coming, he was getting the state visit. He already had it, and he didn’t have — he didn’t want to give as much.

And these issues are tough for him. So, I don’t say this was great. And the relationship has become a lot more competitive since I served in government at the end of the Clinton administration. So — and I think this is not going to turn that around.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Mearsheimer, a lot of reporting about the efforts by President Xi to consolidate his power in China. What do you see in the months to come in the overall U.S.-China relationship?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that he has a significant domestic problem at home, for two reasons.

One is that he doesn’t have a lot of legitimacy, in the sense that communism, which is the ruling ideology, doesn’t have much power these days. And, furthermore…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean even with the Chinese people?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Even with the Chinese people.

And, as a result, he’s been playing the nationalism card. And that causes all sorts of problems, because it forces him to be more aggressive in foreign policy. At the same time, he’s having significant economic problems at home. And it’s very hard to predict where this train is headed, but these economic problems could get worse. And that may force him to be more aggressive on the foreign policy front, for the purposes of trying to keep those centrifugal forces at home at bay.

So, this could get messy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, John — the point that John makes, Christopher Johnson, reminding us about the Chinese economy, the difficulty they have had with their markets, the effect that has had on the rest of the world, there really wasn’t much mention of that today.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes, and that is what was surprising.

I think it would have been much more helpful. I think this was a missed opportunity. If both presidents had taken the opportunity they had to reassure global equity markets that the two countries are working together to stabilize these markets, that would have been very, very useful, and I think that was a missed opportunity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much is known about how well the two men, the two leaders get along with each other, and does that really make a difference?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Not much is known. I think it certainly makes a difference.

I think what we can say is, they have worked hard on their relationship. And that goes back to their first meeting at Sunnylands in California, where they had this shirtsleeve summit and so on. I think you can characterize the relationship as not close, but respectful and candid.

And my sense is that when they have — especially when they have these more informal settings — like, last night, there was a two-hour, almost three-hour private dinner between the two.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Small dinner.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes. Today was just the formal mechanics. Last night was where they really discussed these issues.

And I think they have had in-depth conversations about each other’s political systems, about some of these regional architectural regions that John has referenced. So, they do have candid discussions, but the relationship clearly is not close.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s one that we all will continue to focus on.

Christopher Johnson, Susan Shirk and John Mearsheimer, thank you, all three.



SUSAN SHIRK: Thank you.