Xi and Obama at Sunnylands

It was a dream meeting from the point of view of the public relations people on both sides but quite pointless from almost every other point of view. So Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama and their elegantly dressed spouses were all smiles and relaxation in the sunshine of a California estate known, like something out of Disneyworld, as Sunnylands.

President Xi could show America and the world that despite the typically over-engineered hair, he was a jolly enough fellow unlike his dour predecessor and hence to be trusted. He thus went some way to offsetting fears of China stemming from its aggressive posture in Asian sea and border disputes and sometimes crude use of its commercial firepower to spread its global influence.

President Obama could show that he was tackling China on the issue of intellectual property theft and cyberspying and agreeing with China on difficult topics such as North Korean nuclear weapons. American soft power was massaging the Chinese ego.

But supposedly "good personal relations" have limited uses in international affairs - just ask those intermarried crowned heads of Europe who went to war in 1914 even as they exchanged cousinly greetings. Xi almost alone determines his country's national interest. US presidents never have that much power.

So what of the so-called substance? Both sides agreed that they could not accept Pyongyang as a nuclear armed state. But it already is and there is no precedent for the abandonment of such weapons once boasted about and tested. The weapon may be crude and the North may lack the means of delivery but China has long tolerated its development and no amount of US rhetoric about has made any difference. For sure North Korea is an awkward customer and at times an embarrassment for China. But it also serves a purpose for both countries, for China keeping the regime alive and reducing the prospect of Korean reunification, for the US and Japan providing cover for the buildup of forces intended more to counter China than Pyongyang.

The US continued to make a big issue of theft, via cyberspace, of intellectual property by China (and others) said to cost American firms tens of billions of dollars a year. Of course many of the culprits are Chinese state-owned firms but most of this activity is driven by Chinese commercial interests rather than directly by the state. It is conducted by other companies and countries too, so the correct response of US firms should surely be to tighten their own IP security.

Much the same goes for state cyberspying. Doubtless China has placed particular emphasis on this as the country trying to catch up and finding that its own cyber techniques, while still behind those of the US, are more competitive than in most other areas of technology.

But the US focus on this issue was anyway undermined by the revelation in Britain's Guardian newspaper of the existence of Prism, a US surveillance system which enabled access to all the data from Google, Apple, Facebook and all the other, mostly US-based, information and networking hubs. Now admitted and defended as necessary to counter terrorist threats, the revelations will do no good for the sales of these US products in countries such as China, which want to divert such commerce to their own sites and products, or those in Europe who are sensitive to invasion of privacy.

It is bad enough when Google sells information culled from client emails and web activity for its own gain and possible use by others, even worse if it is being accumulated in a vast US government storehouse and, in the wrong hands, could make George Orwell's novel of the all-knowing state, 1984, a reality. Liberty is never free and societies have to pay an occasional price in terms of terror attacks for not allowing "security" obsessions to turn a nation into a cyber-enclosed gulag.

China, for all its crackdowns on the Internet, implicitly recognizes this better than the US. There is no going back to Maoist control of mind and body. Could the US by neglect not intention be moving towards "big brother is watching you?"

More significantly, the meeting mostly avoided the most contentious issues, notably the clash between China's ambitions in East and Southeast Asia with the US's upgrading of its strategic and diplomatic relations in the region and its implicit support for China's neighbors, not least Japan, facing its maritime claims. At the same time, China did not seek to claim any role in the conflicts in the Middle East - although it may be a more neutral party than any other given US subservience to Israeli expansionism, Russia's unholy role in Syria and Europe's inability to define a policy on either.

Meanwhile, once contentious trade and currency issues have faded into the background. The yuan has generally continued its rise against the dollar and small steps have been taken towards liberalizing currency flows and interest rates. China's export growth has been losing momentum even if its surplus with the US remains large. Even China's bid to buy US meat producer Smithfield has met little opposition.

Most influential voices in the US assume that there was no strategic issue involved and the acquisition would help China improve its food quality though cleaner more efficient and humane methods.

An agreement for control of hydro fluorocarbon emissions is useful but was agreed in advance as some frosting for the Sunnylands cake. It said nothing about whether the meeting itself achieved anything beyond photo opportunities. But at least it did no harm.