In an unusual and potentially momentous informal summit, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, will today begin three days of talks at a Californian desert ranch in what are being briefed as wide-ranging discussions on high-level strategic issues. Commentators are focusing on the potential for a personal rapport between the two leaders to emerge, with significant effects on broader relations between the world’s two most important nation states. But the initiation of a major strategic shift is dependent on the two sides overcoming a series of persistent disagreements and managing respective domestic pressures that limit the scope for a bold new departure.
Both leaders are entering somewhat uncharted territory, but there is an argument that Xi rather than Obama has more riding on the encounter. It is Xi's highest-profile foreign trip yet as Chinese leader, and was preceded by an important visit to Latin America. The break from protocol and ceremony inherent in the desert retreat are a clear invitation to consider upgrading the bilateral discourse, a measured gesture of American hospitality that will not be lost on the visiting delegation.
That said, there may be a risk of divergent expectations going into the event. This week, one senior unnamed U.S. official told the Washington Post that in previous contacts between Xi and senior U.S. leaders, “Xi has demonstrated what to Western eyes and ears looks and feels like a capacity to engage substantively a little more along the lines of what politicians might do.”