Xi Jinping

Low-key Xi-Obama meeting masks significance of talks

Informal summit is intended to create a comfortable atmosphere where Chinese and US leaders can discuss high-level issues more freely

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 3:42am

When President Xi Jinping lands in the United States today, there will be no 21-gun salute or White House welcoming ceremony waiting for him.

Instead, he will spend two days in informal gatherings with US counterpart Barack Obama at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, previously visited by past US presidents and other powerful figures.

Major outcomes, or concessions from either side, are not expected, but the trip is still significant because the two leaders will share close moments together, setting the tone for the Sino-US relationship in the remaining decade of Xi's reign.

In addition to serious talks on various issues, the two presidents will reportedly eat breakfast together and stroll around the retreat, taking in its sweeping mountain views and lush golf course. Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan , will accompany him, but her US counterpart, Michelle Obama, will be absent.

Observers said the talks, after a tour by Xi to "America's backyard" that included visits to three Latin American and Caribbean nations, would be crucial for crisis management because of rising frictions between the two great powers given America's declared "pivot to Asia".

The first meeting between the two presidents since Xi succeeded Hu Jintao in March were originally scheduled for September, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Russia, but both sides believed they should reach out to each other earlier.

"There is some sense of urgency to prevent any further deterioration in US-China relations," said Professor Susan Shirk, chairwoman of the 21st Century China Programme at the University of California, San Diego. "The two leaders don't want another cold war."

Professor Jia Qingguo , an international relations specialist at Peking University, said there was a consensus in both nations that a meeting in September would be "too late".

"This is the right time for the two nations to see how they should proceed for smooth relations," he said.

The trip is also designed for both leaders to address their domestic audiences, showing they pay high regard to bilateral ties but will not bow to pressure from the other side.

"For Obama, this is to communicate to Americans that his administration is paying attention and takes the issues seriously and is taking them to the highest level," said Clayton Dube, executive director of the University of Southern California's US-China Institute.

A series of thorny issues will be discussed by the two leaders, with any major agreements unlikely. For the US, the most pressing issue will be cybersecurity, following allegations that Chinese institutions have engaged in systematic hacking of the US.

Three US lawmakers plan to propose a new law that would freeze the US assets of foreign hackers and revoke their visas. Beijing has denied the allegations and Xi is expected to hit back.

"Getting China to recognise how serious the issue has become to the US will be a step forward," said Patrick Chovanec, a former political aide to senior Republican Party leaders.

For China, America's strengthening ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region are a serious security concern, with Beijing believing the US is the only power capable of creating a negative external environment for China.

Yue Gang , a retired colonel and military commentator, said Washington's rebalancing in Asia had had a retrograde effect on Sino-US ties that could not be compensated for by boosting their economic relationship.

"The two sides need to figure out how to prevent their ties from being affected by any other third country in the region," he said. "High-level talks can stop the deterioration in the relationship from worsening."

Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, said Beijing was on the alert as the US sought to gain the trust of its neighbours. "In this sense, China needs to improve the strategic atmosphere more urgently than the US does," he said.

Other issues to be raised include North Korea's nuclear programme, which saw the two nations endorse a United Nations resolution against Pyongyang, and economic and trade frictions.

In a sign that shows both nations are well aware that the talks will not lead to major achievements, the two leaders decided not to meet in Washington. "Neither leader wants the pressure of having to announce a breakthrough afterwards, which pressure would be greater if the meeting was in Washington," Roy said.

Dube said the talks at Sunnylands, where former US president Richard Nixon wrote his 1974 state-of-the-union speech, would be reminiscent of the way Chinese leaders came to important decisions by meeting at the Beidaihe resort in Hebei . The talks would be unscripted, allowing Xi and Obama to "speak completely frankly and at length", he said.

"Through an extended meeting, you become more comfortable with each other, and you have the ability to actually interact in a way that yields progress on an issue," Dube said.

Jia Xiudong, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, said informal talks showed the maturity of the bilateral relationship, and Xi's confidence.

"They can engage in long and serious talks without going through formalities, and they are more focused on pragmatic things rather than protocol," he said.