06/12/2013 05:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sunnylands Summitry: Alternate Chinese View, Alternate Californian Summit

It's funny how the knowledge of one additional fact can change the perception of a major event.

Here President Barack Obama had prepped the landscape for his California summit with Chinese Xi Jinping by having Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel lay out particular concerns about China in his speech the weekend before in Singapore, as discussed in this pre-summit piece, only to have it publicly revealed just after the summit concluded that the source of explosive revelations about America's massive surveillance programs was then in Hong Kong.

The ex-NSA contractor revealed himself just after the summit ended. He is, of course, former CIA staffer Edward Snowden. Wittingly or no, Snowden handed China a very big card in choosing to alight in Hong Kong.

Shall we believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping did not know that the man Daniel Ellsberg of Vietnam War Pentagon Papers fame calls "the most important whistle-blower of modern times" was sitting in a Hong Kong hotel while Xi held his California summit with President Barack Obama?

What are the odds that President Xi and China's large and effective intelligence apparatus, much of it of course focused on the U.S., did not know he was in Chinese territory? This likely puts a whole new spin on what we witnessed in California.

Both Obama and Xi reported successful talks during the U.S.-China Summit. Xinhua, the official press agency of the People's Republic of China spoke of a "new model of relations." There was even agreement to limit the emission of hydrofluorocarbons, a "super greenhouse gas."

And there was apparent progress on efforts to rein in the nuclear and missile programs of troublesome longtime China ally North Korea. But there was not agreement on China's extraordinary claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, one of the world's most strategic bodies of water and home to a welter of claims from China's increasingly perturbed neighbors. Nor was there agreement on, ah, cyber-espionage, China's role in which the US has been pushing for some time.

Did Obama know what was to come when the White House signaled before the summit that the president intended to push hard personally on cyber-espionage? It hardly seems likely.

Needless to say, Snowden's revelations have dramatically undercut Washington's effort to corner Beijing on the issue. They allow Xi to counter Obama's complaints by saying that the rest of the world, including China, is a potential victim of this massive and formerly secret American cyber-surveillance program.

And now Snowden is in a unique part of China, giving Xi a major card to play in the global power game in which Beijing and Washington are engaged. The former British crown colony has an extradition treaty with the U.S. But Beijing has veto power. And, to make a long story short, Hong Kong has laws to protect those who may be victims of political persecution or, like Army Private Bradley Manning, find themselves the recipients of very harsh treatment.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post had this potentially telling quote Tuesday from an anonymous European diplomat: "A human rights case in which the Chinese grant asylum to an American -- what a master stroke for Beijing."

All this plays out with America in the midst of a complex geopolitical pivot from its fateful over-involvement in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific. (An archive of pieces related to the Pivot.)

I do have confidence in the Obama administration, though not as much as before we learned of its extensive monitoring of journalists working on legitimate stories, not to mention the attorney general's labeling of one as a potential "co-conspirator."

The reality is that most any good journalist has at least some of the skill set of a spy. This is why being a journalist is such a good cover for espionage. Being a student can be good cover, too, wandering around, ever curious, asking questions. But being curious is also part of being alive and human on the planet, and freedom of inquiry lies at the core of a free society.

Meanwhile, with the cyber espionage issue so suddenly sidelined in the court of world opinion, a crew of three Chinese astronauts lifted off early this week from China's Gobi Desert spaceport for a 15-day mission to China's Tiangong 1 space station. The space station is more of a nascent affair compared to the International Space Station, but it is still a huge achievement for China.

And a new set of Gallup Poll surveys in the U.S. and China reveals interesting contrasts and comparisons between the two great powers.

China, as President Xi said prior to the summit, seeks a "new type of great power relationship." And China's people, increasingly affluent and confident, though the society has its undoubted problems, seem in a position to be supportive.

Yet there is a paradox. While China's people are more optimistic in their view of the future than Americans, they also rate themselves as worse off in their own lives. But what is one more paradox in a world filled with them?

Just as the explosive Snowden revelation casts a sharp alternative light on dynamics and meaning of the U.S.-China Summit, a parallel alternative summit taking place around the same time and vicinity provided a special perspective.

California Governor Jerry Brown conducted his own summitry in the Southern California desert, also pushing on climate change and energy issues. And with probably greater credibility than Obama, since it is California -- under Brown and former Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis before him -- that has actually put pioneering greenhouse gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency programs in place ahead of the rest of the U.S.

Brown held a series of major events around the U.S.-China Summit in Rancho Mirage, which in the governor's case culminated in his 45-minute meeting with President Xi Jinping.

Brown and First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown were the ones who greeted President Xi and First Lady Peng Liyuan when they arrived in the U.S. and saw them off at the airport as they left the U.S. Brown had cadets from his charter school, the Oakland Military Institute, form an honor guard for the leader of the PRC.

The two first ladies spent a fair amount of time together, with Gust Brown showing her Chinese counterpart around the Palm Springs Art Museum. The California first lady, one of the principal leaders of the Brown Administration, also took part in other meetings with top officials.

The Brown-Xi meeting at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells dealt with a number of topics, including ways to work together on trade, investment, climate change, technology, infrastructure, tourism, education, and agriculture. Here is the pool report from the Desert Sun.

But Brown made a particular point of sharing the recently released consensus statement on climate change with Xi. This document, prepared at Brown's urging, translates key scientific findings from disparate fields into one unified message for policymakers, industry, and the general public. The statement has been signed by hundreds of concerned scientists in the U.S. and around the world.

As former state Senator Tom Hayden, who chaired the SolarCal agency during Brown's first governorship, argued in a recent column here, the now three-term California governor is in a unique position to liaise with China on the renewable energy/energy efficiency piece of emerging policy. Brown also shared the statement with Secretary of State John Kerry when the two met privately on Friday.

Brown has been working on the California-China relationship for more than a year and a half. He hosted Xi, then China's vice president and leader-in-waiting, in early 2012. Then he put together the extensive trade and investment mission to China in April, which I wrote about here.

Meanwhile, with his latest foray into global affairs complete, Brown returned to the nitty-gritty of state governance. In a tug-of-war with fellow Democrats in the legislature to keep the state's hard-won balanced budget in balance, Brown's more fiscally conservative state revenue numbers prevailed, largely keeping spending increases down. Some additional funding will go to mental health services, dental care, and middle-class college scholarships. While there are some further details to be settled, passage of the state budget by the legally required deadline of June 15th seems assured.

Perhaps best of all from Brown's standpoint, his new school funding formula to target low-income and English-challenged kids is moving forward.

Brown does have a number of problems to contend with, including new controversies with the state's regulated utilities. Southern California Edison is finally shutting down the oddly-troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant, with outstanding questions about who will pay the enormous decommissioning costs, and of course the matter of making sure that the missing reactors, offline since the beginning of 2012, don't cause a major problem of energy supply in the hot summer months.

Then to the north, there is the matter of the giant Pacific Gas & Electric, under increasing fire on a number of issues, including how regulators are handling widespread safety concerns in the wake of the utility's 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno which killed eight people.

In any event, Brown now largely controls the flow and pace of statewide political events, and that will likely only continue next year with his essentially unchallenged re-election coming as he contemplates a likely huge state budget surplus that should be amassed then, a surplus which can be used to help pay down the "wall of debt" and invest on a one-time basis.

With the state's chronic budget crisis in abeyance, and the California economy growing at 3.5 percent, Brown should have the opportunity to see if his energy diplomacy with China can help move the proverbial ocean liner in a new course.

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