US national security adviser Tom Donilon began discussions with Chinese officials on Monday for a summit between their two presidents that will confront divisive security issues while trying to overcome a growing distrust between the governments.
Donilon and state councilor Yang Jiechi, China's senior foreign policy official, said next month's summit is a chance for the US's Barack Obama and China's Xi Jinping to work through problems. Though they did not identify those challenges in their public remarks, ties are strained across the board, from longstanding differences over Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs to new disputes over cyber-attacks and China's more assertive pursuit of territorial claims against US allies Japan and the Philippines.
In a sign that both sides want to stem the drift besetting ties, the summit now scheduled for June 7-8 is taking place months earlier than the two presidents were supposed to meet. It's their first face-to-face meeting since Obama's re-election and Xi's promotion to head of the Communist Party last November. The setting - at the private estate of the late publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg in southern California - is supposed to be informal, giving Xi and Obama and chance to build a rapport.
That Xi agreed to an informal summit has been seen by Chinese and US experts as positive. His predecessors always preferred formal state visits, splashing images of White House ceremonies and banquets in the Chinese media to bolster their standing as world statesmen.
Good will aside, distrust has deepened in relations in recent years as the U.S. feels its world leadership challenged and China, its power growing, demands greater deference to its interests and a larger say over global rule-setting. Chinese officials and state media regularly say Washington is thwarting China's rise, strengthening alliances in Asia to hem in Beijing and discouraging Chinese investment in the US on national security issues.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported on Monday that late last week battle ships and submarines from the Chinese navy's three fleets staged a war game in the South China Sea. The area is already a flashpoint, with Beijing's aggressive claims to disputed islands having rattled the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
On Sunday, Li Keqiang - on a visit to Germany in his first trip abroad as China's premier - pressed China's claim to a cluster of East China Sea islands held by Japan. Traveling to Potsdam, where allied powers declared the terms for Japan's surrender 68 years ago in the waning days of World War II, Li told reporters that Japan must not "deny or glorify the history of fascist aggression."
The aggrieved sense emanating from Beijing goes beyond recent flare-ups in old territorial disputes. The website of the People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, is running a recurring column that takes a critical look at Americans and their institutions. First called "Immoral, dishonest Americans," the title of the column was changed to "The Americans you don't know about."
State councilor Yang in welcoming Donilon said his trip helps "in strengthening the bilateral trust and cooperation." Looking toward the summit, Donilon said, "The meeting will be an important opportunity for our presidents to have in-depth discussions about US-China relations, and a wide range of global and regional challenges facing both our countries."
One item on Donilon's summit agenda is the guest list. Xi will stop in California after formal visits to Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico where he will be accompanied by a large group of senior officials. If that entourage descends in full on the Sunnylands estate, US diplomats said the White House might feel the need to bring similarly large numbers, making the summit less intimate.