Obama faces test with ‘fast on his feet’ Chinese President Xi

Olivier Knox
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President Barack Obama’s aides have made his upcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week sound like a promising date—a casual, more personal get-together without the counterproductive pressure of their formal Valentine's Day meeting at the White House in 2012.

On the hot-button issue of cyberspying, however, the message from Beijing seems to be "keep your hands to yourself."

The venue , a luxury 200-acre retreat in the California desert, will put the emphasis on the leaders' personal chemistry far from the Oval Office, the honor guards, the stiff photo-ops and stiffer senior officials as well as the other trappings of American power.

“Sunnylands allows for a more informal set of discussions than we’ve had with China to date in the sense that it’s a less scripted, less formal, less rigid agenda, but rather there is some space for the two leaders to interact and have more open-ended discussions about the issues that underlie the U.S.-China relationship," a senior Obama aide told reporters on a conference call arranged on condition that the official not be named.

Xi "seems to be someone who is fast on his feet, who is open to engagement, who is willing to speak directly to Americans and to issues of concern to Americans in a manner that was not the hallmark of some of his predecessors," another aide said on the same call, emphasizing that Xi seems ready for "a substantive, candid and productive conversation." Oh, and Xi spent time years ago "in a state that is very important to the president personally—Iowa," the aide added.

The two leaders will take up issues that threaten the relationship—most notably U.S. allegations of extensive cyberattacks emanating from China and targeting U.S. government agencies and businesses.

"There is reason to hope that President Obama and President Xi can, beginning from a high starting point, have a substantive, candid and productive conversation. But of course, this is a proposition that we are seeking to test," one of the Obama aides said.

But if this is a diplomatic date of sorts, China's top diplomat in the United States has a pretty blunt response to America's overtures on the hacking issue: prove it.

In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Affairs magazine in May, Ambassador Cui Tiankai defiantly declared the United States hasn't provided "evidence that could stand up in court" that China is involved.

And Cui offered what is essentially international diplomacy's answer to "I know you are, but what am I?"

"A huge number of Chinese computers, Chinese companies and Chinese government agencies have also been attacked by hackers. If we trace these attacks, maybe some of them, or even most of them, would come from the United States," Cui told the magazine. "But we are not in the position to come to the conclusion that these attacks are sponsored or supported by the U.S. government. This is not a very responsible way of making such claims."

Prospects of a real breakthrough here are dim—the two sides had already announced plans for a working group to tackle the issue next month. And the latest allegations have sparked renewed interest in the U.S. government's unmatched global electronic espionage operations.

OK, so, how about U.S. efforts to get China to side with the West on Syria's civil war instead of backing Russia's position of supporting the government of President Bashar Assad?

“We always follow the principle that the affairs of a particular country should be determined by its own people, not by us, not by outsiders. It’s not up to China or the United States to decide the future of the country,” said Cui. (Pause here to consider that the Chinese diplomat spoke on the record and is not cloaked in anonymity like the U.S. officials quoted above.)

Some observers have noted that Beijing has recently taken a harder line on North Korea, which relies on China's patronage even as it flouts international demands to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs. Here, too, Cui declined to put Beijing in bed with Washington.

"We just cannot distance ourselves from North Korea geographically. That’s our problem—it’s so close to us. Any chaos or armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula would have a major impact on China’s national security interests," he said, adding that the media overstate China's influence on its secretive Stalinist neighbor.

Still, the envoy declared, "they know China will never accept their nuclear program."

Isn't China vastly more powerful than North Korea?

"Well, the United States is even more powerful, and has it managed to change North Korea’s behavior? I don’t think it has been very successful so far," Cui told the magazine. Xing!

Ultimately, though, it will be up to the new Chinese president, who is expected to take some questions alongside Obama at a joint press conference in California. Afterward, whether it's hacking, Syria or espionage, analysts will weigh Cui's comments and puzzle over whether that's what Xi said.