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At informal Obama-Xi summit, White House hopes for a connection

In Rancho Mirage, Obama and China's Xi Jinping may be able to discuss tough issues without all the trappings and aides of a formal summit.

June 04, 2013|By Christi Parsons and Don Lee, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Two years ago, President Obama hosted China's president, Hu Jintao, in a fastidiously choreographed White House summit involving an honor guard, a state dinner and a 21-gun salute. In meetings, officials spent more time reading from scripts than discussing touchy topics of mutual concern.

The ceremonial trappings will be gone when Obama hosts China's new president, Xi Jinping, at a "shirt-sleeves" summit Friday and Saturday at Sunnylands, a 200-acre desert retreat in Rancho Mirage with a pedigree so laid back that it flanks a golf course at the intersection of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope drives.

The White House proposed the informal summit in hopes the two leaders can establish a personal rapport early in Xi's tenure and discuss — without the pageantry of a state visit — the toughest issues between them, particularly North Korea's nuclear program, cyber attacks from China and territorial disputes in Asian waters.

"Getting to a venue like Sunnylands allows for a more informal set of discussions than we've had with China to date in the sense that it's a less scripted, less formal, less rigid agenda," a White House official said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity in briefing reporters. "So it's not just dealing with the irritant of the day, but also stepping back and getting more of a blue-sky sense of where the United States and China stand on these issues."

White House officials initially were reluctant to stage the meeting because Obama and Xi are scheduled to meet this year at a Group of 20 meeting and an Asian economic summit. But Xi has rapidly asserted his authority at home and abroad, and the White House faced increasing pressure from business leaders and others anxious about China's growing economic and military clout.

U.S. officials say Beijing had requested the meeting almost since Xi declared a more engaged global role for China as one of the "great powers" last winter. After Xi assumed the presidency in March, he visited Russia and Africa on his first overseas trip and dispatched China's premier to India and Pakistan, as well as Europe, further signs of China's new ambitions on the world stage.

"It's clearly designed to telegraph to the United States, 'Look, we're going to be playing our own diplomatic game,'" said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA specialist on China who now is a senior advisor at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The message there is, 'We want a good relationship with the U.S., but we can do a lot in the world without you if you want to do it that way.'"

With Xi already planning official visits this week to Trinidad and Tobago, plus Costa Rica and Mexico, Obama extended a last-minute invitation in April to stop on the West Coast before Xi flies home.

That left little time for a formal summit. The White House isn't even sure the two leaders will issue a joint statement, as is customary after a summit, let alone any "deliverables," or major policy announcements usually so important in such high-level visits.

During the visit, Obama hopes to sit down with Xi in at least one meeting with just two or three aides. The relaxed format is likely to give each leader an opportunity to "develop a serious sense of the other," as Kenneth Lieberthal, a Brookings Institution expert on China, put it.

"If it goes well, each will at the conclusion effectively say to himself, 'I get that guy.... I think I can do business with him,'" said Lieberthal, formerly a senior official on Asia policy in the Clinton administration. "Of course, there is a possibility that one or both will conclude that he cannot really 'read' or trust the other, in which case the future relationship will also reflect that reality."

Past meetings with Chinese leaders have included what one administration official referred to as "bleachers full" of aides. Sometimes it seemed that Hu, the last Chinese president, was speaking more to his own delegation than to the Americans present.

Xi lived with a family in rural Muscatine, Iowa, for several weeks in 1985 on an agricultural tour and is seen as far more worldly than his predecessor. Though not fluent in English, he and an interpreter spent many hours with the loquacious Vice President Joe Biden when Biden visited China in 2011, when Xi was vice president.

Biden, in turn, took Xi to a Lakers game when Xi visited the West Coast last year. The two also spent hours discussing North Korea, trade and human rights.

After those visits, and others by senior administration officials, White House officials concluded that Obama might develop a working relationship with Xi once he became president.

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