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Obama Meets With China's President Amid 'Enormous Strain' Between Nations


Two men meet for dinner this weekend in Washington. One is the leader of the nation with the world's largest economy, and the other leads the nation that expects its economy to grow larger. One leads the nation considered the most important power in Asia. The other believes his country should be. President Obama is hosting China's President Xi Jinping starting today. And beneath the ceremony, there is considerable tension, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: State visits to Washington by world leaders traditionally emphasize the positive between two nations. But this two-day visit by President Xi Jinping comes during a particularly turbulent time in U.S.-China relations.

KURT CAMPBELL: I think it's going to be one of the most difficult and challenging summits of President Obama's time in office.

NORTHAM: Kurt Campbell, formally the State Department's top Asia expert, says President Xi arrives in Washington when there's a deepening well of distrust between the two nations. Campbell, now chairman of the Center for a New American Security, says the U.S. questions recent moves by Xi on human rights, the economy and cyber hacking.

CAMPBELL: Certain actions are creating an anxiety that is undermining the quality of the U.S.-China relationship at a time where we really need cooperation on big global issues.

NORTHAM: The two sides have found common ground on such things as climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. But there are serious differences on many other issues. The most contentious is cybersecurity. The U.S. accuses Chinese hackers of targeting American businesses and government agencies, something President Xi denies. The largest attack was the theft of personal data of more than 22 million current and former federal employees. The Obama administration had considered sanctions against Chinese companies ahead of Xi's visit.


SUSAN RICE: State-sponsored, cyber-enabled economic espionage must stop.

NORTHAM: National security adviser Susan Rice said cyber hacking is an economic and national security concern to the U.S.


RICE: It puts enormous strain on our bilateral relationship, and it is a critical factor in determining the future trajectory of U.S.-China ties.

NORTHAM: Rice says President Obama will be direct in his talks with Xi about cyberattacks. He'll also likely press Xi about his handling of China's economy, the second-largest in the world. The recent meltdown of the country's stock market rattled global markets. Another serious concern is China's growing military presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. It's been creating artificial islands and building military runways near the world's busiest shipping lanes. Christopher Johnson, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says talks aren't expected to produce any major breakthroughs.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: I think it's pretty clear from what we've seen that President Xi doesn't see a great deal of value in investing in the Obama administration at this point that he has already sort of entered this lame-duck status.

NORTHAM: But Johnson says for domestic political reasons, President Obama isn't particularly inclined to help out Xi either. Compared to the U.S., China has few demands from this visit. Its big concern was over protocol, including a 21-gun salute and formal state dinner.

AMY CELICO: From the Chinese perspective, that's what matters more than anything else.

NORTHAM: That's Amy Celico, a China specialist at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm.

CELICO: Success of this visit will be if President Xi is accorded the respect of a global state leader here in Washington, D.C. That's for domestic consumption as well as for U.S.-China relations.

NORTHAM: So with luck, no anti-China protest, no public gaffes during the state dinner or when Presidents Obama and Xi raise a toast to a vital but troubled relationship. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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