Susan Walsh, AP
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.
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