Page 1 of 2 Humble pie for Xi on Sunnylands menu
By Peter Lee
The expert consensus is that the Barack Obama-Xi Jinping summit at Sunnylands, California is something of a relationship-building nothingburger. The summit was arranged on short notice, there is no detailed agenda, and the most likely result is that Obama and Xi will get to know each other better and therefore communicate more effectively.
In fact, the main concern of Western adversaries of the People's Republic of China (PRC), from dragon-slayers on the right to human rights crusaders on the left, seems to be that President Obama will surrender to Xi Jinping's burly charm and slacken in
his resolve to twist the panda's testicles.
From the right, the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Auslin wrote an op-ed on the Foreign Policy magazine website asserting that the summit shouldn't even have happened.
... [S]summits like this one should be reserved for friends and allies ...
There are almost no shared values between Beijing and Washington, and little complementary policy. The Chinese engage with the United States because it allows them to play the charade of backslapping, while sidestepping tough issues. Unfortunately, Washington finds itself in a dialogue dependency trap ... 
Writing at the Asia Society's ChinaFile blog, Professor Andrew Nathan also expressed his concern that excessive comity might break out:
I hope our president avoids signing on to "a new type of great power relationship." This is Chinese code for the US preemptively yielding to what China views as its legitimate security interests. These interests are quite expansive - acceptance of the Chinese regime as it is, human rights violations and all; acceptance of China's territorial demands in the East and South China Seas; deference to China's views on the rules governing international trade, currency, climate change, humanitarian intervention, and so on ... I think a new equilibrium between American and Chinese interests will have to be achieved by painstaking work on concrete issues over a long period of time, often in a contentious environment. 
For good measure, Foreign Policy blog's Isaac Fish contributed a post hailing Michelle Obama's non-appearance at the summit, only expressing regret that her absence was officially attributable to obligations surrounding end-of-school for the children in Washington, and not an overt snub to Xi's wife to shame her for her past role as PLA chanteuse.
It is unlikely that President Obama will conduct his meeting with Xi like a middle manager briskly interviewing an unqualified and unattractive job applicant over a latte in the local Starbucks, impatiently checking his Blackberry during the pitch and abruptly leaving to get his car washed.
However, skeptics should be pleased that the United States holds the advantage at this particular juncture of the evolving US-China relationship and is probably prepared to use it.
The "pivot" - also known as "the rebalancing" - is working, albeit in unexpected ways.
The US exercise in "confrontainment" has not produced a united, US-led coalition compelling the PRC to upgrade its adherence to Western universal norms in return for the right to continued full membership in the community of nations.
Instead, Japan, under the rule of the PRC-hostile nationalist Shinzo Abe, is working to co-opt the rhetoric and goals of the pivot to create a favored place for Japan as the crucial economic and security component in an alliance of Asian democracies confronting China, thereby spooking the PRC and also working against the US hegemony in Asia which the pivot was intended to prolong.
Abe is doing the heavy lifting in assembling a Great Wall of Asian democracies containing China, roaming Asia in search of allies (and for the aid/trade/investment opportunities needed to provide some long-term fuel for his program of economic rebirth, "Abenomics").
To China's chagrin, Abe appears to be quite successful in getting open commitments to enhanced economic and security competition with China's regional adversaries (the Philippines, Vietnam), and conducting high profile engagement with erstwhile PRC ally/satellite Myanmar.
The nastiest shock for PRC, however, was the open tilt by India away from China and to Japan. Although Premier Li Keqiang made India the destination for his first overseas trip after assuming office, his visit was overshadowed by a flare-up in border tensions in Ladakh and Indian disgruntlement over China's large surplus in bilateral trade.
Shortly thereafter, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a working visit to Tokyo, and his rhetoric went considerably beyond the triangulating rhetoric usually associated with Indian foreign policy to a full-throated endorsement of the special India-Japan relationship.
An Asia in which the Philippines, Vietnam, and India might be following the lead of Japan in an anti-China coalition is not just a matter of diplomatic embarrassment and potential (if remote) military hazard to the PRC.
There is the matter of the competing trade blocs: the US-led "Trans Pacific Partnership", the "high standards" pact that does not include the PRC, and the ASEAN-based and China-promoted alternative - the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, which has a more hospitable attitude toward mixed economies and state-owned enterprises and does not make a fetish out of the extraterritorial intellectual property and legal rights of multinational corporations as the TPP does; nor does it include the United States.
Japan has seized on TPP as a crucial element in its strategy to push the PRC toward the economic sidelines and assert a more central role for Japan, as a backgrounder in India's Financial Express pointed out:
From its start, the TPP was more than a regional trading arrangement. The US has not shied away from allowing it to be viewed as a response to China's growing economic presence in the Asia-Pacific. Abe has noted that the TPP's impact extends beyond the economic sphere. Participation in the TPP will allow Japan to create a "new economic order" with the US, creating new rules and ensuring stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Importantly, Abe sees the creation of this new order and its new rules as important steps in achieving Japan's national interests. Given that Japan is currently embroiled in a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, joining the TPP can also be seen as an attempt on the part of Japan to counter increasingly assertive China. ...
On the one hand, regional convergence based on the RCEP model will facilitate China's rise as the dominant Asian power. Conversely, a TPP-driven convergence will allow the US to re-assert itself as the dominant power in Asia. 
Since the inner workings of the TPP negotiations are notoriously opaque, it is not clear that Japan's full participation in TPP negotiations will give it the power - which is theoretically the prerogative of other members - to blackball new applicants. However, given Abe's China strategy, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the ability to apply a chokehold to China's TPP plans figured in Japan's decision to join negotiations.
At the same time, Japan is also a participant in the RCEP talks.
Perhaps equally fatally for the PRC's hopes, India, as befits its ambitions if not its location, is also a partner in the TPP talks as well as the RCEP talks.
If Japan and India combine to call for the RCEP to meet the same standards of the TPP, they have enough economic and geopolitical clout to make the TPP negotiations become the de facto standard. The RCEP - and the PRC - can languish on the sidelines.
Sidelining China and allowing Japan to occupy a central position among the smaller Asian maritime democracies - in essence, acting as a big frog in a smaller pond - is a good thing for Abe, but not necessarily for the United States, which will find itself crowding in the smaller pond it will have to share with graying, economically shaky Japan.
With conditions tending towards the unfavorable in Asia, and Japan's independent foreign policy whittling away at US claims to hegemony, the PRC's alternative is to play the US card and persuade the United States there are sound geopolitical advantages in restraining Japan, admonishing India, and allowing China some advantage in its myriad territorial and economic disputes.
In recent days, China has made several conciliatory moves: it sent a high-level delegation to the Shangri La defense ministers gab fest in Singapore to challenge the framing that the PRC is a bunch of confrontational knuckleheads on regional security and territorial issues. The PRC was determined to engage, as Reuters reported in "China turns on the charm at regional security forum":
[T]he charm offensive by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers, less than a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping meets US President Barack Obama for an informal summit, appeared to be designed to tone down the recent assertiveness by emphasizing cooperation and discussion ...
[A] senior US official accompanying Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to the forum saw a big change in the Chinese delegation. "Last year China had a very, very small contingent, a relatively junior-ranking contingent. This year they came in force ... and have been very active in the panels," said the official. "That's very, very good. We want everybody to engage." 
Then there was some discreet groveling on the issue of the Trans Pacific Partnership, via People's Daily:
China has been following the talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and hopes for more transparency in the discussions, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Friday.
Hong's remarks came after the US Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, Francisco J Sanchez, said the United States welcomes China to join the TPP. ...
Hong said China is open-minded about cooperation initiatives that are conducive to economic integration and common prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, including the TPP and the RCEP. 
Add to that conciliatory noises on the vexing issue of North Korea via a leak to Reuters designed to communicate that the Chinese leadership got tough with North Korea's envoy when he showed up in Beijing end-May:
Beijing tried to convince Pyongyang to stop its nuclear and missile tests ...
China has grown increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang. It agreed to new UN sanctions after Pyongyang's latest nuclear test in February, and Chinese banks have curbed business with their North Korean counterparts in the wake of US sanctions on the country's main foreign exchange bank.
A former senior US official said Beijing's insistence that North Korea halt testing would be in line with recent signs it was running out of patience with Pyongyang.
"What I've heard from talking to Chinese officials and American officials who are talking to them is that top Chinese officials now emphasize that the principal goal is to terminate the nuclear weapons program of North Korea," the ex-official said.