BEIJING — President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping face weighty issues when they meet at a private estate in California next week, but their most important task may simply be establishing a strong rapport.
Tucked away at a mansion with a private golf course on the edge of the Mojave Desert, Obama and Xi will search for the kind of personal chemistry that has eluded their predecessors for the past several decades. With the bilateral relationship growing ever more critical and complex, how well the leaders click matters even more now.
Distrust has grown between the world's sole superpower and the rising Asian giant. Beijing sees Washington as trying to thwart China's ascendancy. The U.S. accuses China of widespread computer hacking and unfair trade. Meanwhile, there's worry their militaries might be drawn into conflict as China tries to elbow aside U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines over disputed, remote islands.
"There are a lot of problems between China and the U.S. that aren't going to be easy to solve. The hope, therefore, is that a way can be established so that at the times of crisis, dialogue will prevail based on trust and the personal relationship between the two leaders," said Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.
The June 7-8 get-together at the private Sunnylands estate of late publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg is the first face-to-face meeting between the presidents since Obama's re-election and Xi's promotion to Communist Party chief last November. Under China's dual party-government system, Xi didn't officially assume the title of president until March.
The summit comes months before the two leaders had been originally scheduled to meet, highlighting a perception on both sides that the leaders need to refocus on the U.S.-China relationship following their political transitions and amid myriad distractions at home and abroad.
The accelerated timing constitutes "a clear message that China wants to emphasize the importance of U.S.-China relations for the future," said Cheng Li, a Chinese politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
It's not clear yet how big the two delegations will be or whether Xi and Obama will meet one-on-one, something Xi's stiff and formal predecessor, Hu Jintao, was unwilling to do, Li said.
But there are hopeful signs that the two men will gel. Xi already has a warm relationship with Vice President Joe Biden, whom he accompanied to western China on a visit in 2011. Xi also boasts a greater familiarity with the U.S. than any of his predecessors, having visited frequently and maintained his ties to families he stayed with in Muscatine, Iowa, while a visiting provincial official in 1985. He also sent his daughter to Harvard.
The two men share a love of sports: swimming and football on Xi's side, basketball and golf on Obama's. Both are married to glamorous, high-profile wives who have played a strong role in shaping their images.
Xi's wife, People's Liberation Army songstress Peng Liyuan, was for many years better known to the public than her husband. Chinese media and Internet users closely followed her activities during the couple's first formal state visits to Russia and three African countries earlier this year.
"It will be interesting to see how the chemistry will develop. It's important, because particularly in China, personal relationships always carry a lot of weight in state-to-state relations," said the Brookings Institution's Li.
Xi has already proved himself a different leader by his pragmatism. With relations edgy, he was willing to forgo the pomp of an official White House visit for the lower-key meeting in California.
Trust between the countries has dwindled over the decades. After U.S. planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in what Washington says was an accident during the Kosovo war in 1999, angry Chinese protesters nearly breached the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. In the discord, Chinese President Jiang Zemin refused a call from the White House. Two years later, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. surveillance plane off southern China, Beijing held the American crew and waited for an acceptable apology from the U.S.
In 2009, the U.S. Navy accused Chinese sailors of harassing one of its ocean floor mapping vessels in a game of high-seas chicken.
The trust gap was further underscored by newly publicized claims Tuesday that China employed cyberattacks to access data from nearly 40 Pentagon weapons programs and almost 30 other defense technologies ranging from missile defense systems to the F-35 joint strike fighter.
The disclosure was included in a Defense Science Board report released earlier this year, meaning U.S. officials knew of it before planning for the summit began. The disclosure's public release allows U.S. officials to highlight an issue of concern without necessarily overshadowing the summit.
Other likely agenda items include the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, conflict in Syria, climate change and expanding bilateral military ties. China will likely press its claims of business discrimination in the U.S. market, along with its deep discomfort over Washington's shifting of military assets to Asia and renewed emphasis on its regional alliances, moves seen by China as part of an effort to contain its rise.
The perception of U.S. decline and Chinese ascendancy forms much of the subtext to the current relationship, with Beijing seeking greater international influence commensurate with its status as the world's second-largest economy. Many in China see the U.S. as a waning power weakened by the economic crisis, partisan feuding and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In their latest contribution to diplomatic argot, Chinese leaders now say they are seeking a "new model of major country relations" in their dealings with Washington. Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang defined that Wednesday as "different from the old model featuring confrontation and conflict."
"We believe a new model of major country relations between China and the United States should be based on mutual trust, equality, inclusiveness, mutual learning and win-win cooperation," Zheng said at a Wednesday briefing.
Xi and Obama first met early last year when Xi, then China's vice president, visited the White House on a trip to meet key American political players and introduce himself to the American public. The visit afforded Xi a chance to show his human side, reconnecting with his old Iowa friends, chatting with students at a school in Los Angeles and even catching part of a Lakers basketball game.
The two presidents give off different vibes but share abundant confidence and varied interests. The portly, soft-spoken Xi is known as a capable but highly cautious administrator, in contrast to the forceful and hard-charging Obama.1 comment on this story
Known primarily for his pedigree as the son of a communist elder, Xi is seen by many observers as a strong nationalist willing to press territorial claims and what Beijing broadly proclaims as the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."
Unlike former president Hu, who often seemed uncomfortable outside official settings and stuck closely to his official talking points, Xi appears at ease around foreign visitors and is known for speaking without notes and allowing sessions to run well over their scheduled time limits.
"On a personal level, he's confident, he's on top of his brief and you get a very distinct sense that he has a roadmap in his head in terms of where China needs to go. He's not only a very adroit political operator, but he's also a realist," said former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
Matthew Pennington reported from Washington, D.C.