President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk at the Annenberg Retreat of the Sunnylands estate Saturday in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Associated Press photo.
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping “blazed a new trail” away from the two nations’ past differences, a senior Chinese official said Saturday after a two-day summit in the California desert that ended with few policy breakthroughs but the prospect of stronger personal ties.
Xi’s senior foreign policy adviser, Yang Jiechi, said the two leaders “talked about cooperation and did not shy away from differences” in about eight hours of talks Friday and Saturday. The gathering at the sprawling Sunnylands estate was their first meeting since Xi took office in March.
“The two presidents agreed to build a new model of major country relationship between China and the United States based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” Yang said.
“We have to stay each other’s partners, not rivals,” Yang said.
Yang said the international community expects relations between the world’s two largest economies to steadily improve and grow, and that they are committed to working more closely together. He called it “a strategic, constructive and historic meeting.”
Obama told reporters that the talks were “terrific” as he and Xi opened their second day of talks Saturday by walking side-by-side through the manicured gardens of the sprawling Sunnylands estate. The unusual summit site was aimed at fostering more candid and free-flowing discussions on numerous high-stakes issues, including cybersecurity, North Korea’s nuclear provocations and the economy.
Yang said cybersecurity shouldn’t be the cause of friction but an area of cooperation for two nations that face similar challenges. Yang said China “is against all forms of hacking and cyberattacks. China itself is also a victim of cyberattacks and we are a staunch supporter of cybersecurity.”
The leaders closed the summit in low-key style, with no formal statements to the press, just a private tea with Xi’s wife.
The White House said in a statement shortly after Xi departed the sprawling estate that the two nations agreed to work together for the first time to reduce hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas. The agreement was cast as a significant step toward tackling climate change.
U.S. officials are hoping that Xi, who took office in March, proves to be a new brand of Chinese leader. He has deeper ties to the U.S. than his predecessors, given that he lived in Iowa briefly as a visiting official and sent his daughter to college in the U.S.
The two leaders appear to have more in common than Obama had with former Chinese leader Hu Jintao, who often appeared stiff and formal in meetings. Both men are in their 50s and share a love of sports: swimming and football on Xi’s side, basketball and golf on Obama’s. Both are also married to glamorous, high-profile wives who have played a strong role in shaping their images.
During their talks, the two men also spent time explaining to each other how their life experiences have shaped their world views, an Obama administration official said.
Xi talked about growing up in the Chinese countryside during his country’s cultural revolution and the perspective it gave him on his country’s development. And Obama explained about how his childhood in Hawaii shaped his view of the U.S. as a Pacific power.
The Chinese leader broke out a bottle of “Maotai,” a famous Chinese liquor, to toast Obama during Friday’s working dinner, according to the official, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the private meetings.
The two leaders will likely meet again in September, on the sidelines of an international economic summit in Russia. Xi also invited Obama to travel to China soon for a similarly informal round of one-on-one talks.
Ahead of the weekend summit, the U.S. emphasized that Obama would press China on its alleged cyberhacking against the American government and businesses. But Obama and Xi carefully avoided publicly accusing each other’s nation of high-tech intrusions, though they acknowledged an urgent need to find a common approach on addressing the matter.
“We don’t have the kind of protocols that have governed military issues and arms issues, where nations have a lot of experience in trying to negotiate what’s acceptable and what’s not,” Obama said during a Friday night news conference with Xi.
Obama also sought to distinguish between China’s alleged cyberspying and his own government’s monitoring of U.S. phone and Internet records. He insisted the two issues were separate and distinct, and that concerns over hacking and intellectual property theft shouldn’t be confused with the debate over how governments collect data to combat terrorist threats.
“That’s a conversation that I welcome,” he said.
Xi, who called rapid technological advancements a “double-edged sword,” claimed no responsibility for China’s alleged cyberespionage. He said China was also a victim of cyberspying but did not assign any blame.
Xi has been expected to press China’s claims of business discrimination in U.S. markets and to express concern over Obama’s efforts to expand U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region. China sees that as an attempt to contain its growing power.
On North Korea, U.S. officials said Obama was looking to build on Xi’s apparent impatience with North Korea’s nuclear provocations. The U.S. has welcomed Xi’s recent calls for North Korea to return to nuclear talks, though it’s unclear whether the North is ready to change its behavior.
Xi departed California Saturday afternoon. Obama planned to stay in California through the weekend, though he had no public events planned.