If former US President Jimmy Carter’s recent trip to China is anything to go by, the upcoming meeting between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in Beijing could be a frosty one.
Carter travelled to the country in September to celebrate 35 years of “normalised relations” with China. But according to the writer and academic Orville Schell, who accompanied Carter on the trip, the man who famously welcomed Deng Xiaoping to the US in 1979 was “humiliated” at almost every point. It started when Carter arrived in Beijing to give a talk at Renmin University and found that his appearance had been folded into a forum on global finance. Then, events in Shanghai, Qingdao and Xi’an were cancelled or reorganised without the delegation’s knowledge or approval.
But the worst example of official “standoffishness” was a half-empty banquet in the Great Hall of the People that was meant to be the centrepiece of the trip. Neither President Xi nor Premier Li Keqiang were there, and a speech by Li Yuanchao, China’s vice president, apparently lacked any of the historic bonhomie Carter’s trip was meant to incorporate. (At the time of the Carter dinner, Xi was in a nearby room toasting Malaysian Supreme Head of State Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah.)
“All that was needed was to celebrate his dramatic partnership with Deng in 1979 and to say that this most essential of global relationships now needs to continue. Instead, the Chinese have again and again chosen to send messages that have many unspoken complications,” Schell complained in the New York Review of Books last month.
One of those messages, as Schell pointed out, is that China now wants to be dealt with on “its terms” and as a “great power”, equal only to the Americans in status terms.
This issue appear to have come up during preparations for the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum in Beijing in early November. Apparently, the Chinese wanted Obama to stay on for another Sunnylands-style summit, while the American pushed for a more run-of-the-mill “working meeting”.
As Bloomberg has also suggested, US officials have been shunning the “new great power relationship” phrase so beloved of Chinese diplomats of late. And even when they do use it, it comes with caveats. “That’s a term that the Chinese came up with, not the US so I’m not sure whether we subscribe completely to the exact interpretation of that,” the news agency quoted Robert Wang, a senior US State Department official with responsibility for APEC as saying last month.
But even if China isn’t getting the “great power” recognition it wants, it still intends to host an APEC forum befitting of its new international primacy.
Architects, designers, builders and landscape gardeners have been working to transform an island in Yanqi Lake just north of Beijing into a worthy site for the forum for months. The work includes 12 new villas which form the Chinese character jing or ‘capital’ from the air, as well as a new sun-shaped hotel to be run by the Kempinski Group.
To enhance security levels for the 21 national leaders attending the forum, authorities have removed a cable car line from a nearby mountain and are considering dismantling a small footbridge that leads to the island, Xinhua said.
Much to the chagrin of many of the locals, Beijing has also ordered nearby factories, government offices and schools to close for the summit period, hoping for a quieter, fresher environment.
“Why couldn’t they do this for us last week,” one weibo user asked angrily, referring to the terrible smog that hovered above Beijing and the surrounding area last week (Greenpeace stated PM2.5 levels peaked at 15 times World Health Organisation limits).
Getting back to Carter’s disappointing trip, Orville Schell says in his article that the former president even considered “just packing up and going home”. But in his case, it was less to do with suffering from pollution in the Chinese capital and more a sense that he was being deliberately snubbed.
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