Rising China propels Xi into Obama summit, say analysts

BEIJING (AFP) - Smiling benignly as he strolls among schoolchildren or nods to sailors on the deck of a warship, President Xi Jinping epitomises China's new-found confidence as he heads into his first summit with Barack Obama.

The US president leads the only country that outshines China in global power and influence, and which Beijing clearly sees as its single most important relationship - and major rival.

Under Mr Xi, China is becoming increasingly assertive in territorial disputes with key US ally Japan and other neighbours, while not shying away from rows over trade and other issues, among them cyber-espionage.

The leaders, who command the world's two biggest armed forces and its two largest economies, meet on Friday and Saturday in the United States in what White House officials hope will kindle a personal rapport.

Though they might seem at first glance to come from completely different worlds, some analysts see common threads in their life experiences as a basis to connect.

Mr Willy Lam, a politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described them as both "populist in nature".

Mr Obama defied the historical odds to become America's first black president.

Mr Xi suffered hardship during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution when his father, a hero of the Chinese revolution, was purged and Mr Xi himself was sent to a rural area to work, as were many educated youths.

"He lived in the countryside, one of the poorest counties in China, so he has this populist appeal to the man on the street and also to the peasants, to members of the lower classes in China," Mr Lam said.

Both men have come a long way and now stand at the apex of global power and prestige.

"The burden of leadership alone may be enough to unite them," said Mr Scott Harold, a China expert at the US-based Rand Corporation think-tank.

But analysts stressed individual understanding would always be trumped by national interests when it comes to diplomatic relationships.

Mr Xi's signature slogan is the "Chinese Dream" and he has referred to the "great renaissance of the Chinese nation".

He became chief of the ruling Communist Party and head of its powerful Central Military Commission in November, completing the hat-trick of Chinese power in March by becoming state president.

The two days of talks will be their first since then, though they met last year when as vice president, Mr Xi visited Washington and other locales, including a small Iowa town where he stayed briefly in the 1980s on a study tour as a young official.

Mr Steve Tsang, an expert in Chinese politics at Britain's University of Nottingham, cautioned against reading too much pro-US sentiment from Mr Xi's expressions of fondness for the rural Midwest.

"We're talking about somebody who is talking about a 'China Dream' that is going to rival the 'American Dream' but in a different kind of way," he said.

"I think it already demonstrates confidence and on the basis of this confidence a degree of assertiveness that we have not previously seen," he said of Mr Xi's approach to diplomacy so far, expecting him to be a "pretty tough cookie in negotiations with the Americans".

Mr Xi will lead China for a decade, and is already unrivalled at home and in command of foreign policy after a quick consolidation of power, analysts say, even as China's leadership structure remains collectivist in nature.

"He starts out with and has rapidly built a lot more capital as a leader than any previous leader in China since Mao Zedong," said Mr Harold.

"There's no one who's contesting his authority," he added, unlike his predecessors, Mr Hu Jintao and Mr Jiang Zemin.

Mr Jia Qingguo, a foreign policy expert at Peking University, said Mr Xi had established "credibility and leadership" by moving to address key problems at home and abroad, including corruption and relations with North Korea.

"He's managed to make himself the undisputed leader of China and he has a lot of room for exercising leadership and guidance for this country," Mr Jia said.

Mr Xi - who will be accompanied by his glamorous wife Peng Liyuan - has also impressed US officials who have seen him.

"I watched him interact... with Chinese colleagues and American leaders," former secretary of state Hillary Clinton told a US foreign policy group last month, calling Xi "pragmatic" and "much more of a politician" than Mr Hu, who was generally regarded as stiff and uncharismatic.

The venue - the secluded Annenberg resort in the desert east of Los Angeles - shows that Mr Xi is ready to face the US with far greater confidence than his predecessors, Nottingham's Mr Tsang said.

"He is sufficiently secure that he doesn't need that formal dinner at the White House," Mr Tsang said.

"This is a fairly powerful message that's being sent to the Americans."