A good place for friends to meet
China and the US need a solid foundation for ties if suspicions are to be laid to rest and challenges met. The informal meeting between presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama at a laid-back California retreat next month has every chance of making stronger what is already in place. A host of issues are potentially on the table for discussion, but striking deals and making agreements is not for now of greatest importance. What the leaders need most of all to do is build personal trust and a good working relationship.
Never before have Chinese and American heads of state sought to get to know one another better in such a way; the traditional approach has been summits that are rich with symbolism and rigidly formal. Only rarely has the formula been broken, most notably in 2002 when Jiang Zemin held his third meeting in a year with George W. Bush at the former US leader's Texas ranch. The venue for the June 7-8 talks between Xi and Obama - the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage - has been a long-time holiday destination for officials and celebrities.
Sunnylands was chosen with informality in mind. The name evokes optimism and that is what is needed for a relationship presently clouded by uncertainty. For China, there is the US pivot to Asia, American support for Taiwan and perceived backing for Japan in its territorial dispute. Washington has a long list of concerns, including trade, the yuan, Chinese military transparency, cyber-spying and Syria. Both leaders want the other to do more over North Korea's nuclear proliferation.
The fundamentals for better ties are already in place with contacts at a multitude of levels. Since Xi took the presidency in March, Beijing has been visited by a host of US officials, among them Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The presidents have spoken by phone and Obama last month hosted China's new ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai , at the White House.
A "great power" relationship has been promised but has yet to be defined. To attain such a goal, China and the US have to improve co-operation and better manage their differences. Successful bilateral relations are grounded in Xi and Obama being on friendly terms. By putting aside protocol, they have every chance of creating the ties that will help their nations work together for the common good and the world.