Bates Gill
Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme
The Chinese president has staked his political reputation on key policy points on cyber security and militarization in the South China Sea.
Barack Obama looks on as Xi Jinping speaks during a ceremony on the south lawn of the White House in Washington on 25 September 2015. Photo via Getty Images.Barack Obama looks on as Xi Jinping speaks during a ceremony on the south lawn of the White House in Washington on 25 September 2015. Photo via Getty Images.

For all the pomp accorded to the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Washington—his first formal state visit to America—most analysts gave the meeting between the leaders of world’s two most powerful nations middling to poor marks. According to the mainstream thinking, the persistent and growing troubles in the relationship precluded any substantive breakthroughs and hence the meeting would be a yawner.

That narrative only has it about half right. It is certainly true that Beijing and Washington face a range of difficult bilateral problems. But that has been true for decades. It is also true that transformative breakthroughs should not be expected from this summit. But that may say more about the overly-high expectations many seem to have that all summits should be marked with bold new advances, which is not how it usually works in real-world diplomacy.

Rather, in the midst of the dire atmospherics, the two sides managed to move ahead on two of the most vexing issues they face—on the South China Sea and on cyber security. In both cases Xi Jinping made public statements no Chinese leader had made before—and certainly not on such a high-profile international stage. Also importantly, these diplomatic openings offer opportunities to encourage further positive progress in addressing these two nettlesome issues.

Regarding the South China Sea, Xi Jinping said clearly that China was ‘committed to respecting and upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight that countries enjoy according to international law’ and that Beijing ‘does not intend to pursue militarization’ of islands in the sea. On cyber security, the two sides issued statements agreeing ‘that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information’, points repeated publicly by Xi Jinping.

These Chinese commitments, made in such a high-profile and public way, carry serious political and diplomatic weight.  For the first time, China’s top-most leader has acknowledged that malicious cyber activity is a problem for US−China relations, government-backed targeting of confidential commercial information is wrong and the two sides need to open an official, senior-level dialogue to focus on these issues. Interestingly, China’s public and internal security ministries, the all-of-government State Internet and Information Office, and possibly Chinese military intelligence bodies will take part alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other US intelligence agencies in the twice-yearly ministerial-level and interagency dialogue to be set up to address bilateral concerns over cyber crime and other malicious cyber attacks. These are small but positive steps in the right direction.

Foreign leaders and diplomats who have a stake in a keeping the South China Sea peaceful and open to traffic should now seek further clarification on Xi’s commitment that China will respect freedom of navigation and overflight and refrain from militarizing the islands it occupies. Those conversations should include defining what constitutes ‘militarization’. In their dealings with China, leaders and diplomats would do well to press China, both bilaterally and in multilateral settings, to accept stronger norms to stop cyber-enabled intellectual property theft by governments.

Obviously the Chinese statements should not be taken at face value alone and the proof of Chinese commitment will ultimately lie in their actions. But on two of the thorniest areas of tension in the US−China relationship—areas where Beijing long eschewed engagement with Washington—there is not only an opening for some progress, but an opening to which Xi has now staked his personal and political reputation and against which future Chinese action will be intensely scrutinized and judged.

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