A “SHIRT-SLEEVES summit” this week between the world’s two top economic powers is shaping up as anything but relaxing, with an assertive new Chinese leadership seeking a bigger place at the global table.
The United States president Barack Obama and newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet on Friday in southern California at a relatively informal retreat aimed at allowing the pair to get to know each other away from the spotlight of Washington.
High-level US-Chinese encounters of recent decades have been unable to match Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to Communist China in 1972 that ended decades of estrangement.
But China experts say if Mr Obama and Mr Xi can develop personal rapport and make at least a little progress on substantive issues, the summit could gain some historic significance.
Any feelgood vibe at the luxury resort in the desert near Palm Springs could be soured by Mr Obama taking a hard line with Mr Xi over Chinese cyber-hacking of US secrets.
While China worries the US is trying to encircle it militarily with its strategic “pivot to Asia,” the cyber dispute is the most pressing issue for Mr Obama.
“The president wants to be able to have, behind closed doors, a tough and straight conversation with Xi Jinping about our specific concerns,” a senior US official said of the cyber-security issue.
In a sign of an easing of tension over hacking, an Obama administration official said on Saturday a previously agreed high-level working group on cyber security would convene for its first talks in July and meet regularly after that. The official said the panel would focus not only on hacking but on “developing rules of the road for operating in cyberspace.”
“There have got to be red lines drawn. If the activity continues, there need to be some sanctions,” said Shawn Henry, who fought cyber thievery as an FBI assistant director and is now president of the security firm, CrossStrike Services. “They need to understand what the risks are.”
In the two-day meeting with Mr Xi, Mr Obama will also bring up differences over North Korea, world trade and China’s territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. The talks are an opportunity for Mr Obama to score a foreign policy success at a time when the lack of US action on Syria weighs heavily on his record.
Mr Xi, pictured below, is eager to be seen on an even footing with the American leader and to show China’s ruling echelon and public that he can promote their interests on the world stage.
Beijing has increasingly used its growing economic clout internationally and exercised its military muscle regionally.
Yet China feels hemmed in by the US “pivot to Asia,” which defence secretary Chuck Hagel said on Saturday would involve prioritising deployments of the most advanced US weapons systems to the Pacific.