The issues facing the two remain largely the same as they’ve been throughout Obama’s tenure, defined by economic rivalry, mounting cybersecurity threats to U.S. businesses, an assertive Chinese nationalism and an expanded American military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Only the Chinese leader has changed, and Obama intends to discover what, if anything, that might mean. Their time together on the 200-acre estate, free of the stiff pageantry that Chinese leaders typically expect in a U.S. visit, is a test of how the two leaders get along and whether a personal relationship can influence policy in the years ahead.
“There’s a lot of talk about strategic distrust,” said Jeffrey A. Bader, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who served as Obama’s chief adviser on East Asia early in the administration.
“That’s not a phrase, frankly, I’d use, and I don’t believe it’s all that easy to overcome strategic distrust between countries,” he continued. “But trust between individuals is real, and they don’t have to have the same ideology.”
American presidents traditionally wait at least a year for a major meeting with a new Chinese leader, who often needs time to consolidate his hold over the institutions that comprise political authority in Beijing.
But Obama saw no reason to wait that long with Xi, who was given control of the presidency, the Communist Party and the military simultaneously when he took office in March. His predecessor, Hu Jintao, had to wait almost two years before all three sources of Chinese power were under his command.
The Obama administration had also been cultivating Xi for two years before he took office. Vice President Biden traveled to China two years ago to meet with him, and Xi was accompanied by Biden last year during a tour of the United States.
During that visit, Xi — the son of a Chinese revolutionary imprisoned for his political views — also spent more than 90 minutes with Obama at the White House, rare for a visiting vice president.
“Through these contacts and others, 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,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the summit.
Since taking office, Obama has made Asia a priority after a general lull during the Bush administration, which was preoccupied with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Obama has regularly attended meetings of Asian-Pacific countries, joined regional security forums and strengthened the U.S. military presence.