US President Barack Obama will hold his first summit with President Xi Jinping in California next month, with Sino-US relations rattled by alleged Chinese cyber spying and tensions in the Pacific.
Obama will welcome Xi to the plush Sunnylands estate resort in Palm Springs on June 7-8, as Washington seeks Chinese help to subdue North Korean belligerence and seeks a diplomatic breakthrough to end the slaughter in Syria.
The talks will be the first major move by Obama in the crucial but delicate relationship with Beijing since he won a second White House term, after a campaign in which China and its trade practices were often criticised.
“President Obama and President Xi will hold in depth discussions on a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues,” the White House said in a statement.
“They will review progress and challenges in US-China relations over the past four years and discuss ways to enhance co-operation, while constructively managing our differences, in the years ahead.”
The White House said that Obama’s national security adviser Tom Donilon would travel to Beijing to prepare for the Obama-Xi meeting between May 26-28.
Previously, Obama and Xi had not been expected to meet until the G20 summit in Russia in September, but given the fact that both leaders are embarking on new terms of office, it appears both sides were keen for an earlier meeting.
The announcement that Xi and Obama would meet was made hours after Obama met Myanmar President Thein Sein, the first leader of his country to visit the White House in nearly half a century.
Many analysts have seen US diplomatic engagement on Myanmar as an attempt to peel it away from Chinese influence – in the context of the wider US “rebalancing” of foreign policy towards Asia.
So the timing of the announcement that Obama and Xi would meet, sure to make big headlines in China and throughout Asia, may be seen as significant.
The news was also one of a flurry of announcements on Monday, including confirmation that Obama would leave on an African tour in late June, that come with the White House battling a trio of domestic political scandals.
US presidents frequently look abroad to cement their legacies in the second terms as their domestic power wanes – though there seems little low hanging diplomatic fruit ripe for Obama to pluck.
Washington has repeatedly called for Beijing to do more to rein in its nominal ally North Korea, during an alarming period of elevated tensions as the Stalinist state has flung warnings of nuclear war.
On a visit to Beijing last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry directly told Xi that China had unique sway over its troublesome neighbour.
North Asia has been engulfed by threats of nuclear war by Pyongyang in response to UN sanctions imposed over its recent rocket and nuclear tests.
Washington has also been frustrated with China’s resistance, along with Russia to a tougher United Nations Security Council sanctions regime against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Recent warnings by the Pentagon and other independent analysts that China is engaged in a vast campaign of cyber espionage to extract the US government’s foreign policy and military secrets have caused outrage in Washington.
In an interview with ABC News in March, Obama said that some, but not necessarily all, cyber attacks on US firms and infrastructure originating in China were “state sponsored”.
But he also cautioned about the need to avoid “war rhetoric” when discussing cyber attacks, and called on Congress to act to strengthen cyber security while protecting civil liberties.
The White House says that US officials frequently raise the issue of cyber hacking at the highest levels with top Chinese leaders.
Washington and Beijing frequently swap accusations over trade disputes across their vast and interdependent economic relationship.
US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew visited Beijing in March on his first official overseas visit.
Washington, although acknowledging that there has been progress since China allowed its undervalued yuan to rise in June 2010, is still concerned about currency issues, which cause turbulence between Washington and Beijing.
China has also been irked by Obama’s diplomatic “pivot” to Asia, which will see a rebalancing of US military forces in the region following the end of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Beijing has also been angered by US support for calls by its Southeast Asian allies for maritime and territorial disputes in the Pacific to be solved through multilateral talks.
China prefers to handle the issue on a one-on-one basis with nations with competing territorial claims.