China’s Xi will meet Obama earlier than expected

BEIJING: China’s new leader Xi Jinping will confer with President Barack Obama next month in California, months earlier than their expected first meeting, as both sides seek to stem a drift in relations, troubled by issues from cyberspying to North Korea.

The June 7-8 meeting at a retreat southeast of Los Angeles, announced Monday by the White House, underlines the importance of the relationship between the countries as they work out ways for the U.S.-led world order to make room for a China that is fast accruing global influence and military power.

Xi has said that China wants its rise to be peaceful, but that Beijing will not compromise on issues of sovereignty — a stance that has aggravated disputes over contested East and South China Seas islands with U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines and friend Vietnam.

Among the other pressing items on their agenda: the spotty global economic recovery, U.S. allegations of persistent Chinese cyber-attacks and espionage and Washington’s desire for China to do more in international efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program.

The issues are so many that the agenda was becoming crowded for any Obama and Xi meeting. The two leaders have spoken by telephone since Obama was re-elected and Xi elevated to Communist Party chief in November. But their first face-to-face meeting was not expected to be held until September on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of 20 large economies in Russia.

“They needed more than 20 minutes on the sidelines of another meeting,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If they want to see U.S.-China relations on a solid footing, to manage the differences and find issues to cooperate on — North Korea, Iran, climate change — it has to start at the top. U.S. China relations are not managed from the bottom up but from the top down.”

The White House, in its statement, said the two presidents will “discuss ways to enhance cooperation, while constructively managing our differences, in the years ahead.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that “this meeting is important to the long-term, sound and steady development of China-US relations as well as regional and international peace, stability and prosperity.”

The decision to hold a working visit instead of a pomp-filled state summit also underscores the government’s decision to put protocol aside to focus on substance. Xi will make the stop-off in California after traveling to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico.

“The engagement has become more flexible, and that helps keep the contact at the highest levels, which is conducive to understanding each other’s viewpoints and taking more effective measures,” Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.

U.S. diplomats have said that Chinese officials had wanted Obama to come to Beijing late this year or early next. His last visit was in 2009. Since then, Xi went to Washington in early 2012 as vice president, and his predecessor as president, Hu Jintao, was given a formal White House welcome a year earlier.

To prepare for the California meeting, Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, will go to Beijing on May 26-28, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.