Jun 06, 2013

    Informal meet may set tone for ties

    WHILE United States President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping both seek to make their highly-anticipated meeting in California this weekend an intimate one, there is one thing they will not do: double date.

    Mr Xi will arrive tomorrow at the Sunnylands estate with his wife, Ms Peng Liyuan, a glamorous singer and military general who - in just months as China's first lady - has elevated that role to a level of prominence and popularity unknown in the communist era.

    But Mr Obama will go stag: Mrs Michelle Obama plans to remain in Washington with their daughters, who finish the school year this week, her office confirmed on Tuesday.

    Her absence will rule out extra dollops of personal diplomacy, but hopes still run high for the ground-breaking meeting.

    When Mr Tom Donilon, Mr Obama's national-security adviser, met Mr Xi in Beijing last week to discuss the US visit, China's newly-minted leader told him he wanted a conversation with Mr Obama that did not involve diplomatic talking points. As if to underscore the message, he ignored the notes sitting in front of him.

    When Mr Xi arrives for his first visit as president, Mr Obama will make his own symbolic gesture, welcoming him amid the olive trees of the California estate.

    It is an enormous bet on the power of personal diplomacy.

    For Mr Obama, who is keenly interested in Asia but has little emotional connection to China, it is a chance to escape the stifling protocol of state visits and establish a rapport with Mr Xi.

    Mr Obama's aides say he was frustrated that he rarely broke through in a dozen stilted encounters with Mr Xi's predecessor, Mr Hu Jintao, who would respond with bland talking points.

    For the new Chinese leader, it is a chance to set the tone for his most important diplomatic relationship, at the start of what is expected to be a decade atop the Chinese power structure.

    "Their leadership was very open to this kind of encounter," Mr Donilon said. "They sense that this is an important moment in the relationship."

    Mr Xi has, on a number of occasions, signalled his desire to break from normal protocol.

    Most significantly, Mr Xi - while he was vice-president - spent about 20 hours with US Vice-President Joe Biden in reciprocal visits.

    The substantive nature of the meetings helped persuade the White House that it would be worthwhile to put Mr Xi and Mr Obama together sooner than the diplomatic calendar would have dictated.