Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photo: EPA

China, US to try new tone in desert outing

China and the United States are hoping for a new chance to set the course for smoother relations through a secluded desert summit as the Asian power’s leader Xi Jinping projects a more confident style.

Xi and Barack Obama will meet June 7-8 at the tony Sunnylands resort in Rancho Mirage, California, their first encounter since the Chinese president took power and three months ahead of their first scheduled run-in at the Group of 20 summit in Russia.

The talks come amid rows between the world’s two largest economies over issues that include China’s alleged cyber-hacking, but the two sides expect the encounter to be less about specifics and more about setting a tone.

“It may not have a long list of what we call deliverables, but it will enable our cooperation to deliver much more in the future,” said Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to Washington.

White House national security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the casual setting will give Obama and Xi space to discuss “the full diversity of issues” and set “a positive and forward-looking agenda” for Obama’s second term.

For the United States, the experience has echoes of four years ago, when Obama entered the White House with hopes of forging a broader partnership with China.

But Obama grew frustrated at what US officials saw as the stilted manner of then president Hu Jintao, who rarely deviated from standard talking points.

Christopher Johnson, a former CIA analyst on China, said that Xi – thanks in part to his elite background – consolidated power more quickly than many US policymakers had anticipated.

“Xi Jinping is much more relaxed and cosmopolitan and more likely to go off the talking points. Hu Jintao was very robotic and oftentimes seemed to be talking more to the Chinese in the room than to his counterpart,” said Johnson, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Obama administration has already invested time in cultivating a relationship with Xi, and Vice President Joe Biden spent an unusually long five days in China in 2011 to mingle with him.

On a return visit last year, Xi saw old friends in Iowa and took in a Los Angeles Lakers game – gestures more in line with China’s seminal reformist Deng Xiaoping, who famously visited a Texas rodeo in 1979, than the stiff Hu.

Beyond the atmospherics, Xi and Obama will have a full plate of issues to discuss ranging from China’s tense relationship with Japan and other US-backed neighbours to the diplomatic stalemate on Syria’s civil war.

The United States has stepped up charges that China has fueled cyberattacks against US companies and the government. A report by former US officials on Wednesday even suggested allowing the United States to hit back at hackers.

The two governments, particularly in China, likely feel that “if we don’t start putting some strategic legs on this relationship, these irritants could really get out of control, poisoning the relationship in a way that’s hard to undo,” Johnson said.

Despite areas of tension, the United States has been pleasantly surprised by China’s steps to rein in North Korea during a recent crisis. Beijing’s support for the isolated state has long been a sore point for the United States.

While US policymakers mostly see him as supportive of warm relations with Washington, Xi has spoken of “a new great-power relationship.”

According to many forecasts, China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy during Xi’s expected 10 years in power.

Xi has already traveled to Russia and Africa since taking office in March and will visit Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago on his way to California.

Nina Hachigian, a China expert at the Center for American Progress, said that the California meeting could provide clues on the trajectory of the two nations’ relationship under Xi.

She said that the meeting would force both countries to work hard to ensure a smooth meeting. Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, is heading to Beijing next week to prepare the meeting.

“Especially in the US-China relationship, which is fraught with mistrust, having leaders develop a degree of chemistry, understanding and respect is worthwhile. But they also need to make progress on the many serious issues,” Hachigian said.