The US-China summit meeting between President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands Estate in California is an institutional innovation in the relationship designed to bring more informality and true strategic dialogue to the highest levels. Recent meetings – numerous though they may be — have tended to resemble dueling recitations of diplomatic grocery lists.
Enormous preparation and detailed scripting tended to proceed every high level encounter, often depriving sessions from even modest improvisational exchanges (Author’s brief aside here: for the last four years I was one of the key diplomats inside the US government charged to prepare for just these kinds of meetings. This work can be heady and demanding when given tasks like negotiating the all-important joint statement; or it can seem trivial and inconsequential when asked to take the responsibility to make sure every protocol detail is in order, from the size of hotel fruit baskets to the number of cars in the official entourage). Let us just say that these are not impromptu encounters where the leaders are “winging it”. There are society weddings, Balanchine ballets, and North Korean placard twirling stadium exhibitions that are less choreographed than recent high level US -China engagements.