President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet for at least six hours this weekend in an unprecedented informal summit that stands to reshape the relationship between the two world powers for the next decade—that is as long as they get along.
The unusual meeting breaking with longstanding protocol, taking place Friday afternoon and Saturday at the exclusive 200-acre Annenberg Estate called Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., marks the first visit to the United States for Xi as China’s new president and the second meeting for the two men.
American officials and China experts believe conditions are ripe for significant progress between the two countries on a host of economic and security issues. The 2012 election and the completion of China’s leadership transition have solidified the positions of both leaders. After growing at a brisk clip through the global financial crisis, China’s economy is slowing, while America is steadily recovering from the Great Recession.
Xi’s more casual style and tight grip on the reins of power is also seen by U.S. officials as an opportunity for more wide-ranging, frank discussions between the two leaders, but also key to developing a personal relationship with Obama. The previous Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, was hamstrung early in his term by being forced to wait nearly two years to take over the Central Military Commission chairmanship from his predecessor Jiang Zemin. Xi assumed the presidency in March, already holding the military spot and the post of general secretary of the communist party. Hu and Obama never developed much of a relationship, U.S. officials said, noting the former leader’s reliance on talking points and wooden personality.
In 2012, Xi visited with Obama in the Oval Office for 90 minutes and met extensively with Vice President Joe Biden on a tour of the United States that took him to Washington and a Mandarin class at a Los Angeles school where he spoke about his interests in swimming and watching American sports. He referenced a Tom Cruise film, joking in Mandarin that finding time to himself is like “Mission: Impossible.” Xi caught Treasury Secretary Jack Lew by surprise when they met in March and conducted the meeting without the customary talking points.
“They have a very different type of leader here, one who is much better suited for this kind of engagement,” said Dr. Ken Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton on China. One senior administration official described Xi to reporters as “someone who is fast on his feet, who is open to engagement, who is willing to speak directly to Americans and to issues of concern to Americans in a manner that was not the hallmark of some of his predecessors.”
Chinese officials want Obama to mark the occasion by directly acknowledging China’s arrival as a world power, and are looking to the summit to further their goal of establishing a “new type of great power relationship” with the United States. Historically every Chinese leader has been welcomed to the United States by a state visit on their first trip, but Xi has thrown that out for valuable one-on-one time.
“It’s even better than a formal state visit,” explained Christopher Johnson, a senior adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “He is getting serious personal time with the president and an opportunity to forge a friendship with Obama.”
Obama’s four-year effort to “rebalance” the U.S. foreign policy focus to Asia and progressing negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement have Chinese officials weary of U.S. motivations in the region.
For Xi, who has his eyes set on pushing through a broad swath of economic and domestic reforms, a cooling of tensions between the two nations will provide space to focus on his own country. A relationship could provide room for never-before-seen cooperation as he works to reignite China’s economy.
For Obama, there is bipartisan pressure at home to take a tougher approach on China over corporate espionage and trade issues. Last year Republican Mitt Romney made designating China a “currency manipulator” a central component of his presidential campaign platform, attempting to tap into American anxiety about China.
Administration officials believe that the calls for a more stern China strategy increase their leverage over Xi, pressuring him to draw himself closer to Obama to keep Congress at bay.
The 25,000-square-foot mansion in the California desert surrounded by a golf course is the perfect venue for the sort of free-ranging discussion both parties are envisioning. The estate has previously hosted seven presidents and dozens of foreign leaders and celebrities. For Obama and Xi, there is no formal agenda beyond a basic meeting schedule, nor are any announcements or agreements expected. (Diplomats and officials will meet in Washington in July for a scheduled strategic and economic dialogue on each country’s specific concerns.)
“Both sides are seeing this as a opportunity when hopefully both men – who have only sent 90 minutes in the same room in their lives – will walk away from this saying I know that guy, I know where he’s coming from, I understand the issues he’s dealing with, and we can do business together,” Lieberthal told TIME from Beijing, where he is meeting with Chinese officials in advance of the meeting. “The only other time we’ve had that [kind of relationship] was back with Nixon and Kissinger in 1972,” he continued.
In recent weeks, Obama and aides have discussed the summit with various China experts, according to people familiar with the meetings. Obama carried out a similar round of discussions before Hu’s 2011 state visit, but his conversations this spring have dealt with how best to seize the opportunity build his foreign policy legacy.
If Obama and Xi hit it off, administration officials believe they can work out a framework to deal with issues like cyber-security, North Korea, and regional security issues, while exploring new venues like economic partnerships and efforts on climate change. “If you have [a relationship], everything is easier,” Lieberthal said.
How some of the issues may shake out if the meeting goes well:
- Cyber security has emerged as one of the most contentious issues between the two countries, with administration officials promising a “very direct and candid discussion” with China in the coming months. The United States and China have already agreed to form a high-level working group to address the issue of corporate espionage. While media reports and lawmakers have highlighted stolen military blueprints and attempts to hack government computer systems, both countries engage in state-sponsored cyber-espionage, and neither side is intent on giving it up. Obama will raise the issue to Xi, but any concrete steps will depend on the outcome of the meeting and the July working group.
- American officials see an opening for the two countries to engage on North Korea, with China recently distancing itself from the dictatorship over disagreements about demilitarization on the Korean peninsula. “The Chinese have decided that North Korea’s leadership is increasingly dangerous to their interests,” Lieberthal said. “There will be an effort to begin serious political and military discussions about how we will handle different contingencies on the Korean peninsula, whether it be a leadership crisis or serious proliferation issues.”
- Obama will also use the opportunity to learn more about Xi’s proposed economic reforms, which are believed to play into U.S. interests. “The hubris that we saw out of China has slowed down a bit,” Johnson said, “We don’t hear them talking about us permanent decline so much anymore. They want to work with us.” American officials may float the notion of providing China entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement assuming certain reform conditions are met. Chinese officials, who are pushing their own regional trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, have expressed a desire to explore a way into the TPP so as to avoid dueling regional trade blocs.
- U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have expressed a desire for the two countries to develop military-to-military ties, which lag decades behind diplomatic ties, as a way of diffusing suspicions by educating each nation about the other’s working dynamics and organizational culture. These relationship help ascertain what each side really needs to meet its own security concerns in the region, whether those visions are reasonably compatible, and how to we keep them on the same page, Lieberthal explained. “If they can establish these ties, it would reduce the probability that we will get into an arms race in East Asia, which is a priority for both countries at this point,” he said. Obama and Xi are expected to discuss opportunities to begin those ties.
Even if Obama and Xi are unable to forge a personal bond, officials hope that the unique opportunity to sound each other out will provide space for long-lasting cooperation.
“We want to get to a position where our relationship is strong enough that one disagreement doesn’t jeopardize other areas where we can be really successful working together,” one senior administration official said.