WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and new Chinese President Xi Jinping opened two days of talks at a California retreat with joint calls for a new relationship, even as Obama said he’d continue pressing China on its human rights record and cyber security.
Obama told Xi it was critical that the U.S. and China, who have set up a working group to tackle cyber threats, arrive at a “firm understanding” of how to resolve the problem of cyber security. Xi said China itself had been victim of attacks and agreed it was a matter of concern.
The remarks came as the two met for the first time, expressing interest in developing a working relationship.
“The United States welcomes the continuing peaceful rise of China as a world power,” Obama said at the start of two days of meetings at an estate in Rancho Mirage, California. “In fact, it’s in the United States’ interest that China continues on the path to success.”
Xi told Obama they were meeting “to chart the future of China- U.S. relations and draw a blueprint for this relationship.”
Revelations of U.S. government surveillance programs had threatened to complicate the first-time summit between the two. Obama and his aides grappled with questions about the surveillance as the president headed to Rancho Mirage for the summit, where he planned to raise U.S. complaints about Chinese spying.
En route, Obama found himself defending the U.S. programs, saying they’re legal and necessary to counter terrorist attacks. He didn’t answer a question reporters shouted to him about whether the revelations of the programs would complicate his talks on cybersecurity with China. The U.S. has accused China of hacking into U.S. companies in search of secrets, as well as using surveillance to monitor critics of the regime and to mute dissent.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the furor over U.S. spy programs wouldn’t complicate the summit, saying instead that the U.S. program offers a “pretty good illustration of the kind of conversation we want to have about respecting civil liberties and protecting the constitutional rights of the people that you govern.”
Xi is unlikely to raise the U.S. surveillance programs as a defense of Chinese activity, said Yun Sun, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution’s China Center.
“What the U.S. government has done is intrinsically different from what Chinese entities have done,” Yun said. “The U.S. government has been acting out of a defensive position; the Chinese engage for a very different perspective, either for commercial secrets or for data mining an interest that China is interested in.”
Chinese state-run media have framed the story as the U.S. government “intruding” into the privacy of its own citizens, Yun said.
“Their focus is how the American people are angry with the U.S. government,” she said. “As if to say, ‘Hey, Washington, you have your own troubles. Your system is not that perfect; China’s system is not that bad.’ ”
Administration officials said they didn’t expect any treaties or agreements to come out of the meetings, but Obama was expected to press Xi on ending what the U.S. says is a barrage of cyberattacks aimed at U.S. businesses and condoned, if not directed, by Beijing. A recent survey co-chaired by Jon Huntsman, former U.S. ambassador to China under Obama, pegged the cost of cyberattacks on U.S. businesses at $300 billion a year and said China was a prime culprit.
Business groups were pressing Obama for tougher sanctions against commercial hacking, and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, including House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., unveiled legislation earlier this week that would punish hackers backed by any governments that permit cybertheft.
The bill calls for the Department of Justice to bring more economic espionage criminal cases against offending foreign actors. It would bar foreign agents participating in cybercrimes from applying for visas to enter the United States. If they currently reside in the U.S., their visas could be revoked and their financial assets frozen.
China denies the claims and says that it, too, is a victim of cybersecurity breaches.
The two leaders gave the outward appearance of an upbeat meeting at the outset, though they also signaled they would discuss their differences.
Obama said as the two largest economies in the world, the two would have a "healthy economic competition," but there is a "whole range of challenges on which we have to cooperate," citing North Korea’s quest for a nuclear weapons programs, nuclear proliferation and climate change.
He said the U.S. 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 cybersecurity and the protection of intellectual property."
In addition, Obama said he’d continue “to emphasize the importance of human rights.”
Xi noted people in both countries were watching the meeting closely. “The whole world is also watching very closely,” he added.
“We need to think creatively and act energetically, so that working together, we can build a new model of major country relationship," he said.
Xi treated it as a new start.
“This reminds us of what happened over forty years ago,” Xi said as he invoked Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, “when the leaders of China and the United States…realized a handshake across the Pacific Ocean and reopened the door of exchanges between China and the United States.”
He noted the two countries have a “vast convergence of shared interests,” including the stability of the global economy and international and regional hotspots.
“On all these issues our two countries need to increase exchanges and cooperation,” he said.
And he called for determining “what type of China-US relationship do we both want. What kind of cooperation can our two nations carry out to our mutual benefit? And how can our two nations join together to promote peace and development in the world.”
The presidents appeared together on the grounds of the sumptuous Sunnylands estate near Palm Springs, walking outside in the 115-degree heat for a friendly handshake in front of the cameras.
Xi is the first Chinese leader to agree to a first visit that is not a state visit at the White House. But what the western visit lacked in official Washington pomp, it made up for in grandeur. The pair stood in a spot that resembled a postcard, surrounded by lush vegetation, small ponds behind them and mountains off in the distance. Xi called the setting "a place of sunshine.”
Built for the late publisher Walter Annenberg and his wife, Lee, the sumptuous 200-plus-acre retreat has a history of hosting presidents – for parties, golf and even official business. The Annenbergs had hoped it would become the “Camp David of the West,” a reference to the presidential retreat in Maryland, where Obama invited leaders of the world’s richest democracies last spring for a G-8 summit.