President Barack Obama says he is impressed by the clout possessed by his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, likening his quick consolidation of power to that of Deng Xiaoping, who led China from 1978 to 1992. Obama, speaking to The Business Roundtable in Washington Wednesday, also said he is “less optimistic” about the prospects of improving relations with Russia under Vladimir Putin.
Obama said his meeting with President Xi last month during the APEC summit in Beijing was very productive, resulting in what he called some significant deliverables, including climate change and tariff-cutting agreements. He offered praise for the Chinese leader who assumed his post in March of 2013.
"He (Xi) has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping. And everybody’s been impressed by his clout inside of China after one a year and a half or two years," said Obama.
But, Obama cautioned, there are dangers inherent in this accumulation of power.
“On issues of human rights, on issues of clamping down on dissent. He taps into a nationalism that worries his neighbors and that we’ve seen manifest in these maritime disputes in the South China Sea, as well as on the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.”
At the same time, he said, China has a strong interest in maintaining good relations with the United States. Obama said his Chinese counterpart wants a business investment treaty that could help change the environment for doing business in China.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, in response, said sustained and sound U.S.-China relations will serve the interests of both peoples. It called for respect for each other’s core interests while properly managing differences.
In his Wednesday remarks, Obama said he was less optimistic about the prospects of good relations with Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
"I have a very direct, blunt and businesslike relationship with Putin, in part because I think the situation in Ukraine caught him by surprise, he has been improvising himself into a nationalist, backward-looking approach to Russian policy that is scaring the heck out of his neighbors and is badly damaging his economy," said Obama.
Obama said he wants a diplomatic resolution in Ukraine, but thinks the politics of backing Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine is working for Putin inside Russia despite Western sanctions.
"But, if you asked me am I optimistic that Putin suddenly changes his mindset, I don’t think that will happen until the politics inside Russia catch up to what’s happening in the economy inside Russia, which is part of the reason why we’re going to continue to maintain that pressure," Obama said.
Ankit Panda, associate editor of the Asia-Pacific publication The Diplomat, said what Obama said about China’s leader is not new, and is something China watchers have been saying for a while. He also said Xi projects a unique style of leadership.
"He’s popular both with the laymen and both feared and respected within the [Chinese Communist] party. So that, in itself, isn’t new, but for the president to be saying it, yes, that is something new. He usually avoids remarking on the personalities of Chinese leaders and their leadership styles," said Panda.
Panda said Obama’s description of the state of U.S.-Russia relations is both frank and realistic. He said that given his audience of businesspeople, rather than a multilateral diplomatic forum, Obama felt freer to speak his mind.