Obama hosts Xi at White House for superpower summit

US President Barack Obama (left) and China's President Xi Jinping (right) walk from the White House and across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, the president's official guest house.
US President Barack Obama (left) and China's President Xi Jinping (right) walk from the White House and across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, the president's official guest house.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama was set to roll out the red carpet for his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Friday at the White House, as the two superpowers seek to ease tensions.

In a demonstration of China's VIP status in Washington, Xi will be treated to a 21-gun salute and a state dinner - full ceremonial honors that should play well for him at home.

The visit comes as the weakness in the Chinese economy is roiling world markets, and as Washington and Beijing confront a host of problems, from cyber attacks to friction in the South China Sea.

But the White House is hoping for a constructive exchange on at least one subject: climate change. Xi is expected to announce a new commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

"China will confirm for the first time that it will launch a national emissions trading system, an ETS or a cap-and-trade system in 2017," a senior administration official said.

That could help limit emissions in China, the world's top polluter, which has already launched seven pilot trading schemes in locations such as Beijing and Shanghai.

The initiative would add to emissions curbs pledged last year by China and the US that have already powerfully boosted the bid to forge a UN pact on climate change, scheduled to be sealed in Paris in December.

Other breakthroughs are unlikely on this diplomatic go-around, although an agreement on cyber security has not been ruled out.

- 'Window into world view'

Obama offered Xi Jinping a warm welcome at the White House on Thursday during a casual meeting in which the pair shed their ties and strolled out of the West Wing and across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, the president's official guest house.

Officials hoped that by starting off informally, the leaders of the world's two pre-eminent military and economic powers would find time for a less staid exchange of views.

"Far and away, the most constructive engagements they've had have been in their private dinners," said senior Obama national security aide Ben Rhodes.

This provides an opportunity, Rhodes said, to "put aside the talking points and actually get a window into one another's world view."

- 'Cooperating and competing'

Xi - who kicked off his US visit in Seattle, meeting with top corporate CEOs - is seen in Washington as one of the strongest Chinese leaders in decades, consolidating political, military and government power at a speed not seen since Deng Xiaoping.

Even as the Chinese economy has slowed - calling into question Xi and the Communist Party's technocratic bona fides - the president has tightened his grip on power at home.

But his assertiveness has prompted serious maritime, economic and cybersecurity disputes that US officials say risk throwing a complex and delicately balanced relationship out of kilter.

"At any one time we are cooperating and competing," said one senior administration official, who asked not to be named.

"What we strive for is to make sure that competition doesn't define the relationship and that competition is taking place in a way that is healthy and is fair."

- Cyber theft a 'serious' issue

In addition to climate change, Obama and Xi will look to highlight cooperation to curb Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs and tackling people-to-people ties.

An agreement is also expected to limit the risk of dangerous air-to-air military encounters.

On the eve of Xi's visit, US officials revealed that two Chinese fighter jets had passed dangerously close to an American spy plane in international airspace over the Yellow Sea.

But such agreements just treat the symptoms, according to Michael Green, a former National Security Council official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The larger challenge, the harder question that the administration's deferring on is, if the Chinese behavior continues and the most we can get are important but essentially Band-Aid cures for some of the symptoms, at what point does the US have to consider imposing costs," he said.

A series of cyber hacks and Beijing's forcible occupation of disputed territory in the South China Sea have prompted the Obama administration to send a message that these costs may come soon if Xi's response is unsatisfactory.

"We have serious and fundamental concerns with Chinese state-sponsored cyber-enabled economic theft of our companies' intellectual property and trade secrets, for the benefit of Chinese companies," a senior administration official told AFP.

"The president has raised this a number of times with Xi, as have officials. We expect to see action. We will not hesitate to take the steps necessary to protect our economy and our companies," the official said.