US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), seeking a fresh start to a complex relationship, are retreating to a sprawling desert estate for two days of talks on high-stakes issues, including cybersecurity and North Korea’s nuclear threats.
Obama’s efforts to press Xi to halt China’s alleged hacking against the US could be overshadowed by revelations that the Obama’s administration has been secretly seizing telephone records from millions of US citizens.
There are significant differences between China’s reported cyberattacks and the US’ court-approved domestic surveillance program. However, both underscore the vast technological — and in some cases, legal — powers that governments have to access information covertly from individuals, companies and other governments.
The setting for the talks that began yesterday is the 81 hectare Sunnylands estate just outside Palm Springs, marking a departure from the formality that typically greets Chinese leaders during state visits at the White House.
US officials hope the relaxed atmosphere will facilitate a more candid and free-flowing discussion between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies.
Obama was due to arrive yesterday afternoon following a healthcare event and a Democratic fundraiser in Northern California. He and Xi were set to hold a bilateral meeting yesterday evening, then take questions from reporters. They were also due to have discussions during a working dinner last night and hold additional talks this morning.
The debate over US government-sanctioned surveillance will be juxtaposed with Obama’s warnings to Xi against Chinese spying on the US government and businesses. China has publicly denied that it is spying on the US but Obama administration officials say they have seen some signals in private meetings with Chinese counterparts that Beijing may be ready to address the issue.
The economy is also expected to be a major topic during the talks, with Xi likely to press China’s claims of business discrimination in US markets. The leaders are also certain to discuss North Korea’s provocative nuclear threats.
Obama and Xi first met before the Chinese leader took office in March. They were not slated to meet again until September, on the margins of an international economic summit in Russia, but both countries saw a need to move up their first meeting of the year, given the myriad issues that define their relationship.
Meanwhile, US lawmakers and 30 human rights groups on Thursday urged Obama to use the summit with Xi to press for the freedom of 16 prominent Chinese political and religious prisoners including imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) and political prisoners from the Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities, Christians and followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
The rights groups are backed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers. They called on Obama to restore human rights as a central issue in US-China relations.
“[We] call upon you to advocate for the rights of prisoners of conscience, as your predecessors have done,” Republican Representatives Frank Wolf and Chris Smith and Democratic Representatives James McGovern and Karen Bass said in a letter to Obama.
Additional reporting by Reuters