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US, Chinese scholars diverge on significance of Xi-Obama summit

In a recent discussion on Sino-US relations at China’s renowned Peking University between Chinese professors and their American guests: Professor Shelton Williams, President of Osgood Center for International Studies and former foreign policy advisor to the US State Department, and Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby, diplomat-in-residence of the School of International Service at American University and former secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), divergent views were expressed on the upcoming Sunnylands summit between Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Barack Obama in California.

The discussion between the US and Chinese scholars on  Sino-US relations held at the School of International Studies at Peking University on June 3. Photo:

Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby considers it essential for the leaders of the two countries to meet and hold candid discussions: “It is critical that those two men ‘click’. How to build trust is one of the big challenges for the two leaders.” She pointed out the eight past US presidents and four generations of Chinese leaders have worked together to form a “very cooperative” relationship despite the historical experiences between the two countries.

“There is mistrust between the two countries,” agreed Prof. Williams, “But with enough dialogue, we can understand each other.” He admitted that the summit might not be of much interest to the ordinary Americans who are more concerned with jobs, but the American academic and business circles are both optimistic about it. He added that the US officials, including US Secretary of Defense Chuch Hagel, who has attracted much heat in China due to his earlier speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, all have “deep respect for China” and “hope for a strategic partnership with China”.
Some Chinese professors shared the positive views and stressed that the summit is a good opportunity for the two leaders to talk about important issues as they play a key role in managing the relationship of the two countries. Some expressed their appreciation for the informality of the summit which shows the confidence of the two presidents and the intentionality for serious and strategic dialogue. “Sit down and talk, that’s the only way out,” said Prof Dai Xingyue (戴行钺) of Peking University, a leading scholar on American culture and film, “I am looking forward to the summit.”

However, Prof. Zha Daojiong (查道炯) from School of International Studies at Peking University had a very different opinion on the summit. When asked by Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby about what he expected to come out of the Xi-Obama meeting, he laid out his concerns about the possibility of the summit “going wrong.”

“A lot of these conversations or summits can go wrong,” said Prof. Zha frankly. Human errors such as the interpreter’s capacity to pick up the nuances of messages are an important factor. Another factor is that during the summit, both sides will need to project whatever is deliverable domestically. “But that domestic context may not be the same afterwards,” Prof. Zha pointed out. “It’s good the meeting is taking place. But let’s be realistic about the strength of our relationship and the outcome of the summit.”

Following his remarks, Prof. Dai suggested that perhaps next time President Obama should also invite Premier Li Keqiang and his wife to have a private conversation. “Their English is very good. They don’t need interpreters,” he joked.

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