Officials hope the informal summit between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Friday will help develop a relationship between the two leaders that could benefit US-China relations over the long term. But it may also help define how the Chinese view their new leader, who took over as head of the communist party last November and as president this March, and Xi’s foreign and economic policies.

“This meeting is more risky for him than President Obama,” said Christopher Johnson, senior adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He’s the less established leader and as such he’s got to come in looking that he can be a good steward of China’s most important bilateral relationship.”

Xi has shown more flexibility than Hu Jintao’s administration on issues that are high on the US agenda, especially on cybersecurity and North Korea, Johnson said at the US-China Business Council’s (USCBC) annual membership meeting in Washington, DC, this week. (USCBC is the publisher of the China Business Review.) But Xi will also have to look like he’s defending China’s interests.

In addition to cybersecurity and North Korea, White House officials say the talks, which start Friday, will cover the economy and territorial disputes in the Pacific, among other economic, strategic, and security concerns. Xi’s last visit to the United States was as China’s vice president in February 2012, when he met with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, and traveled to Iowa and California.

Past Chinese leaders, including former President Hu, have insisted on formal state visits, but White House officials say they hope this more informal visit will allow Obama and Xi to have real and candid conversations about the issues facing their respective countries and the bilateral relationship.

Both sides will also have to manage domestic popular opinion of the US-China relationship at a time when American and Chinese attitudes toward each other are on the decline. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, an increase from last year when 40 percent of Americans held unfavorable views of China. Similarly, 53 percent of Chinese view the United States unfavorably. Chinese opinions of the United States in recent years hit a peak after Obama visited China in 2010, when 58 percent of Chinese held favorable views of the United States.

These negative views may put pressure on Xi.

Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who specializes in Chinese leadership politics, said that the summit is important for Xi to consolidate his power at home and define his foreign and domestic policies.

“It’s certainly important for both leaders, but ten times more for Xi Jinping, in my view, because anything successful will have symbolism [in China] that he has established strong personal ties with the US president,” Li said. “I think he’s still in the early stages of his domestic and foreign policies, so it’s a great opportunity to try to define his policies.”

Li said that these policies will likely depend on how events unfold and how the Chinese public reacts to the summit. “His understanding of the US’ intentions and his personal ties or lack of ties and trust or lack of trust all will make a big difference.”

Xi has benefited from a honeymoon period in China because of broad disappointment with the administration of former President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, Li said. But Xi has already increasingly alienated several groups in China, including cultural, economic, and political elites, as well as liberal public intellectuals, according to Li, and faces pressure to improve the Chinese economy.

“So far, of the six or seven months he’s become top leader, the economy has not improved,” Li said at a press briefing Tuesday, noting China’s high unemployment rate for college graduates.

In a media briefing on Thursday, USCBC President John Frisbie said that areas of mutual interest that he believes will come up during the summit include investment barriers, cybersecurity, and potential economic reforms in China.

“There’s an active economic reform debate going on in China right now,” he said. “The outcome in terms of specifics is still unclear. I also think that President Xi’s views on economic reforms are unknown right now. He hasn’t commented a lot publicly in this area, and I think this will be a great opportunity in this informal setting to probe that.”

[author] Christina Nelson ([email protected]) is editor of the China Business Review. [/author]

Posted by Christina Nelson