Obama-Xi Summit Begins At Annenberg Retreat In California Desert

06/07/2013 05:56 am ET | Updated Aug 07, 2013
AP

An unusual sense of anticipation is building ahead of US President Barack Obama's first summit with new Chinese President Xi Jinping, at a secluded and storied California retreat, starting Friday.

Now that the anti-China fury of the US campaign season has stilled, and Xi has completed the complicated power dance involved in taking China's top state positions, the talks represent a new beginning of sorts in Sino-US statecraft.

Ditching the crushing formality of US-China summits, Xi and Obama will meet Friday and Saturday at the Annenberg retreat on Bob Hope Drive in Rancho Mirage, California, a playground of past presidents and the powerful.

The meeting in the desert oasis will focus on testy issues between Washington and Beijing -- great power rivalry, claims of cyber spying, trade and currency disputes and North Korea's dangerous nuclear poker.

Both sides appear to hope that Xi and Obama will, amid the estate's olive trees and monarch butterflies, forge a personal bond of trust.

China watchers in Washington have been impressed that Xi, so soon after taking power, is eschewing the pageantry of a state visit, taking it as a sign of confidence from both the new Chinese leader and his nation.

"Part of the big story here is that (Xi) was willing to have a meeting in Washington, not a state visit, no 21-gun salute, no White House welcoming ceremony, no state dinner," said Jeff Bader, Obama's former top East Asia aide.

Chinese leaders previously felt that such protocol was important to showing they were respected abroad, said Bader, now with the Brookings Institution.

Had Obama and Xi not met now, they likely would have waited until September's G20 summit in Russia to cross paths -- a delay both sides appeared to worry would leave uncertainty festering too long.

Obama aides have privately confessed their boss's frustration with the scripted encounters he suffered with former Chinese president Hu Jintao.

They hope Xi, who one described as "fast on his feet," will relish a more unscripted exchange, and believe his familiarity with America, after a visit to Iowa 30 years ago with a Chinese farming delegation, could help.

It is unclear, though, whether the summit will feature an iconic moment to rival former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping grinning out from under a cowboy hat or Jiang Zemin at George W. Bush's ranch.

Despite the high hopes, and partly due to the swiftly organized program, the White House is predicting no breakthroughs.

But Elizabeth Economy, a China scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the summit could still score.

"President Obama and President Xi could discover some personal chemistry. They could find themselves personally in sync," she said.

US officials want to know more about Xi's vision for "great power" relations, as China's rise brings the risk of a clash with the American superpower.

"The focus is to avoid this so-called historic inevitability of conflict between the two," one US official said.

Joe Yun, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Washington was "trying to put flesh" on Xi's strategic ideas.

"When we talk about a new type of relationship, for us it means a more cooperative relationship. It means there would be understanding, cooperation and that we work together -- not just in the region, but outside."

Obama visited China in 2009, and granted Hu a state visit in 2011.

But progress was fleeting in his first term, as China chafed at the implications of Obama's diplomatic and military pivot to Asia.

On Friday, Obama and Xi will have informal chats, a bilateral meeting, including questions from reporters, and a private dinner. A morning of talks follows Saturday.

Blunt exchanges are expected on cyber security, following a string of reports that China-based operations are stealing US military and commercial secrets.

North Korea will also come up, with US officials encouraged China is becoming impatient with Pyongyang's saber rattling.

Obama is under pressure to tackle what US business leaders complain are China's predatory economic policies and the theft of US intellectual property.

"There is a myth out there that we can't get more aggressive with China because China holds the cards in this relationship," said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

"If you look on balance as to who holds the cards, it's us and we just haven't been willing to play them."

Also on HuffPost:

China's New Leaders
Suggest a correction