China's new leader Xi Jinping will confer with US President Barack Obama next month in California, months earlier than their expected first meeting, as both sides seek to stem a drift in relations, troubled by issues from cyberspying to North Korea.
The June 7-8 meeting at a retreat southeast of Los Angeles, announced Monday by the White House, underlines the importance of the relationship between the countries as they work out ways for the US-led world order to make room for a China that is fast accruing global influence and military power.
Xi has said that China wants its rise to be peaceful, but that Beijing will not compromise on issues of sovereignty - a stance that has aggravated disputes over contested East and South China Seas islands with US allies Japan and the Philippines and friend Vietnam.
Among the other pressing items on their agenda: the spotty global economic recovery, US allegations of persistent Chinese cyber-attacks and espionage and Washington's desire for China to do more in international efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear program.
The two leaders have conversed on the phone, and originally were widely expected to hold their first face-to-face meeting in September on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Russia.
An earlier meeting makes sense because the US-China relationship has become more important and complex, said Wang Dong, an international relations scholar at Peking University.
"If the relationship is to be deepened and pushed forward, there has to be a meeting between the top
leaders," Wang said Tuesday.
"It shouldn't happen as late as September."
The decision to hold a working visit instead of a pomp-filled state summit also underscores the government's decision to put protocol aside to focus on substance.
Xi will make the stop-off in California after traveling to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico.
"The engagement has become more flexible, and that helps keep the contact at the highest levels, which is conducive to understanding each other's viewpoints and taking more effective measures," Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.
US diplomats have said that Chinese officials had wanted Obama to come to Beijing late this year or early next. His last visit was in 2009.
Since then, Xi went to Washington in early 2012 as vice president, and his predecessor as president, Hu Jintao, was given a formal White House welcome a year earlier.
To prepare for the California meeting, Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, will go to Beijing on May 26-28, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.