President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping chat while taking a walk… (JEWEL SAMAD, AFP/Getty…)
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, wrapped up a summit at this sweltering California desert resort Saturday after nearly eight hours of talks over two days and a candle-lit dinner aimed at shaping what both leaders called a "new model" of future relations.
The meetings grew contentious Saturday morning when Obama pushed Xi to do more to curb Chinese cyber attacks on U.S. businesses and infrastructure. Obama argued the alleged hacking was "inconsistent with the kind of relationship we want to have with China," according to Tom Donilon, the president's national security advisor.
Donilon said Obama detailed cases of massive digital thefts at U.S. companies by entities in China, and said if they are not addressed, it would become a "very difficult problem in the economic relationship" between the two countries.
Cyber theft, Donilon told reporters, "really now is at the center of the relationship. It is not an adjunct issue."
The Obama administration has accused China of stealing billions of dollars of technical, financial and other data and intellectual property through cyber attacks. China denies the charge, insisting it is the victim, not the instigator, of digital looting.
On other issues, the two sides agreed for the first time to work together to "phase down the production and consumption" of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases linked to climate change. The gases are in refrigerators, air conditioners and industrial applications.
Donilon said the two leaders also found "quite a bit of alignment" on North Korea, and a possible path for increased cooperation given the threat to regional and U.S. security. Both agreed that North Korea should give up its nuclear weapons.
The presidents discussed North Korea over their Friday night dinner of lobster tamales, porterhouse steak and cherry pie prepared by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
The summit at the Sunnylands estate was notable for its dress code: No one wore neckties, a testament to the oven-like heat and carefully scripted informality of the presidents' first meeting since Xi assumed office in March.
Yang Jiechi, China's state counselor and former foreign minister, told reporters that the importance of the summit was to lay the groundwork for a new relationship, not in any specific accords.
He said cyber security "should not become the root cause of mutual suspicion and friction. Rather, it should be a new bright spot in our cooperation."
Yang said the leaders "blazed a new trail" away from disputes of the last 18 months over regional security and computer hacking. He called the session a "strategic, constructive and historic meeting."
His comments reflect Beijing's desire to demonstrate Xi's skills as a firm steward of China's interests. Xi's aides viewed the summit as a way to show China and the United States as equals, a theme the Chinese leader has emphasized in public comments.
Undergirding the shift is a worrisome challenge: Will China's rising ambitions and growing military and economic clout inevitably lead to a clash with the world's richest and most powerful nation.
The jockeying already has begun.
The Obama administration has started to "pivot" military forces and diplomatic focus to China's periphery in the western Pacific. For his part, Xi arrived here after doling out largesse in high-profile visits to America's backyard, Mexico and the Caribbean.
"What will happen when a rising power and a great power encounter one another?" asked an editorial in Saturday's Global Times, a newspaper tied to the Chinese Communist Party. "The U.S. is trying its best to maintain its status quo, in order to retain its hegemony. China … is eager to become a world power under the rules approved by Western countries."
Obama gave a one-word summary of the summit Saturday, his only public comment of the day. "Terrific," he replied when a reporter asked how the meetings had gone, as he and Xi strolled for 50 minutes by a pond and then sat together on a redwood bench that Obama presented to his guest.
But in more detailed comments Friday night, both leaders sought to downplay the possibility of tension, highlighting instead shared interests and opportunities for cooperation. They pledged to expand official and informal exchanges on military affairs, economics and trade, cyber security, the environment and other issues.
"China and the United States must find a new path, one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past," Xi said. If the two nations work together, he added, "we can be an anchor for world stability and the propeller of world peace."
Obama said he firmly believes "it is very much in the interest of the United States for China to continue its peaceful rise" and to "work with us as equal partners in dealing with many of the global challenges that no single nation can address by itself."