RANCHO MIRAGE — The United States and China are economic competitors who face “a whole range of challenges on which we have to cooperate,” President Obama said late Friday as he welcomed his Chinese counterpart to a two-day summit in this California desert town.
“The United States welcomes the continuing peaceful rise of China as a world power,” Obama said in his opening statement, with President Xi Jinping sitting across the table from him. “In fact, it’s in the United States’ interest that China continues on the path to success.”
Obama also alluded to an issue aides said would be high on the agenda of his meetings with Xi: alleged cyber spying by China on U.S. companies and government entities.
The United States seeks an international economy “where nations are playing by the same rules, where trade is free and fair and where the United States and China work together to address issues like cyber security,” he said.
Obama said he wanted to talk about all of the hot-button issues. Though he raised several of them explicitly in front of Xi, he framed them delicately as things the two countries can “work together to address.” He said he wanted to talk about human rights with a nod toward Xi’s willingness to address the subject. He did not publicly mention the territorial conflicts between China and some of its neighbors.
Xi, who took office in March, noted that the two leaders “are meeting each other earlier than people might have expected” to chart the future of U.S.-Chinese relations.
“Our two countries have vast convergence of shared interests: From promoting economic growth at home to ensuring the stability of the global economy, from addressing international and regional hotspot issues to dealing with all kinds of global challenges,” Xi said.
Obama has declared that cyber security ranks along with economic and defense issues as a “constant focus” in relations with China, a White House official said recently, adding that digital break-ins “threaten to damage U.S.-China relations, as well as potentially damage the international economy and China’s reputation.”
The U.S. and China agreed in April to hold high-level talks to try to set rules for cyber security.
U.S. officials have made no secret of their anger in the face of a constant barrage of hacking, including efforts by a secretive military unit in Shanghai that allegedly has stolen data from scores of U.S. companies.
China has largely denied responsibility, arguing that it is rather a victim of cyber attacks. No one has provided “hard evidence” of Chinese involvement in such intrusions, said Cui Tiankai, Beijing’s new ambassador in Washington.
Obama and Xi aren’t aiming for particular deals or agreements when they emerge from this weekend’s meetings, China specialists said. In this case, they want to walk away with something less tangible.
“It’s helpful if both teams can come away from the meeting saying, ‘I can understand where this person is coming from,’” said Christopher Johnson, a former China specialist for the CIA and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s very important in an era and an environment of this increased mutual strategic distrust that has been the theme for the last 18 months.”
The two leaders planned an evening and morning of cloistered meetings to be interspersed with a couple of meals and maybe a short walk in the shaded gardens of the sprawling Sunnylands estate here.
No one expects that their long-term effort to work together will be an easy stroll. But after months of preliminary meetings involving top-level emissaries, the Obama administration believes they may be able to pave the way for slightly more cooperative relations than have marked the Obama tenure so far.
The White House was skipping some of the usual practices of high-level summits in an effort to keep this one more low-key and relaxed.
The two leaders each made statements to the media, but the broadcasts were delayed too late to get much of a viewership. Instead of a big delegation filling a large room, only eight people came to the table for each side. The men wore jackets without ties and talked over a table filled with arrangements of bright orange roses.
Another reminder that this is not a state gathering was the absence of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Xi’s wife, the famous Chinese folksinger Peng Liyuan, came to the retreat with her husband. She is scheduled to take part in a departure ceremony with the two presidents on Saturday.