Informality and Power Politics: Barack Obama and Xi Jinping on the Ranch

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: By the way, today's meeting between the U.S. and Chinese heads of state is all about informality. No white ties, no state dinner, no red carpet. The venue is the Sunnylands Ranch in California, a sprawling mid-century modern retreat. No one would confuse it for the White House. So what does this short sleeves over suit jackets conference say about relations with China and the new president, Xi Jinping? David Wertime is a cofounder of the online magazine Tea Leaf Nation, and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project. David, what's the point of doing this state visit differently do you think?

David Wertime: I think the fact that this is a more informal meeting signifies that this is an effort for the two leaders to get to know each other personally, as much as that can happen between two of the busiest men in the world.

Werman: Is it partly to put this new Chinese president, Xi Jinping at ease in a place that isn't Washington?

Wertime: I suppose that's correct. I think you could argue it probably puts both men at relative ease. This is a rather unusual format. There is six hours of scheduled talks. You know, this will extend over two days, which is a very long time, again, for two people with such busy schedules. One thing that it potentially signifies also is that Xi Jinping has some degree of confidence in the power that he holds at home, and so he's able to go have a meeting with the American president in a way that is stripped of some of the bombast and diplomatic niceties that you might see from a leader with a bit less confidence internally in his power.

Werman: So David, you follow social media quite a bit in China, meetings between U.S. and Chinese leaders always seem framed by some consequential issue. This time it's cyber security. What are people saying about that?

Wertime: You know, it's interesting. When I looked up today on Weibo, China's major social media platform, a lot of the chatter was quite thin. There was an editor of a conservative paper called the Global Times who was saying he's cheering them both on and hoping for a breakthrough. It's being overshadowed in both countries by news at home. On the Chinese side there's a great deal of discussion about the Gaokao, or the college entrance exam, which is going to be shaping the fates of about nine million students on Friday and Saturday. And in a way this might good. You know, this meeting is less fraught with expectations for particularized deliverables, and that may be good to the extent that the meetings true function is to provide, again, the beginnings of a personal relationship, or a personal understanding between these two men. The ability for both men to see how the other views and analyzes the U.S. China relationship, I think provides an important bulwark against potentially catastrophic misunderstanding.

Werman: So, this conference is out west at a ranch, do you think we'll see Xi Jinping donning a cowboy hat like Deng Xiaoping did?

Wertime: You never know. Deng Xiaoping's visit to the United States was, I think, a real pleasant surprise at the time. He was much more outgoing and charismatic than I think people expected. And that was of course, a fundamentally important meeting in that it helped provide justification for the economic reforms which Deng then instituted within China. So it's possible of course that Xi will choose to don a cowboy hat. We do know that he spent some time in the United States when he was younger.

Werman: David Wertime, cofounder and coeditor of Tea Leaf Nation. Thanks very much for your time David.

Wertime: Thanks so much for your time, Marco. Appreciate it.