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What's On Obama's Agenda With China's President?


President Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinpin at an estate in southern California called Sunnylands next week. They'll meet for two full days because the Presidents have lots to talk about. Joining us now for a look ahead is Ken Lieberthal, the Brookings Institution, he joins us from there. Thanks very much for being with us.

KEN LIEBERTHAL: Oh, pleasure.

SIMON: What do you see as important here?

LIEBERTHAL: Well first, this is only the second time the two men have ever met. They spent 90 minutes together last year when Vice President Xi visited the United States. They lead the - arguably the world's two most important countries. Perhaps the most important outcome from this meeting will be that each will have ample time to get to know the other. And we'll see whether each walks away saying, essentially, I know that guy. I understand where he's coming from, or I think we can do some business. Or whether it has a less felicitous outcome.

SIMON: Do you expect President Obama, to be blunt, talking about cyberattacks as blunt as say, the recent Pentagon report that explicitly accused the Chinese military of hacking into US companies?

LIEBERTHAL: I think he'll be very serious about it. I assume he'll use reasonably polite language, but I don't think there is any question but that he'll convey how important the issue of protection of intellectual property is to a high technology, highly innovative economy like the United States. It is unclear at this point how much President Xi, frankly, understands both the cyber world and what China is doing in it. So I think part of this will be President Obama educating him, providing some of the evidence and indicating that there will be a price to be paid in U.S.-China relations if Chinese behavior doesn't improve in this area very quickly.

SIMON: We should note that the Chinese government has denied involvement in those hacking attacks. And I'm moved to ask, in some ways are elements in China already in a kind of cyberwar with the U.S.?

LIEBERTHAL: I think we need to be a little more careful about how we talk about this area. Frankly, every government always conducts as much espionage as they can to find out the military and political secrets of other governments. The Chinese are not going to reduce that and we would not self-restrict what we do toward China or any other country in that area.

So that's an issue of can we better protect our secrets? Not an issue of should we ask the Chinese to cut it out. They won't, and we wouldn't. What is important is in the area of theft of private sector secrets, and there the Chinese are wide-ranging and indiscriminate. We don't do that in the other direction. It adversely affects our future and I think that's where the President will really focus with President Xi.

Let me add that there are other areas of the cyber world where we actually cooperate in fighting criminal activity. I hope we are cooperating and fighting terrorists attacks using cyber means. So, there are areas where we agree. There are areas where, frankly, is not very useful to discuss it because neither side will ever restrict itself and then there is this area of theft of intellectual property in the private sector where I think we have some very serious discussions we have to undertake

SIMON: Ken, as near as you can tell, is the visit being billed as a big deal in China?

LIEBERTHAL: Yes, it is. President Xi has said publicly that he thinks that the relationship is now at a critical juncture and sees the possibility that it will move forward in a major way. The Chinese characterize this as developing what they term a new type of major power relations. So I think that in reality, President Xi wants to focus personally, overwhelmingly on cleaning up much of the mess that his predecessor left in the domestic system and doesn't want to have a contentious relationship with the United States burdening his time and resources. But he is not going to be an easy person to reach agreement with. So, I think he is very much open to a better relationship. He sees this meeting as very important in determining whether that is doable and is a big step in that direction if it's successful. But we will have to see how this comes out.

SIMON: What would the Chinese government want out of meetings with the U.S.?

LIEBERTHAL: I think the first thing they want is a personal relationship with President Obama at the highest level of the Chinese government. Keep in mind, this meeting is totally unprecedented in the history of U.S.-China relations, in that for the first time we have the two top leaders getting together for many hours without reference to either precedent or protocol. The Chinese are normally absolutely riveted on issues of protocol and precedent.

LIEBERTHAL: And they have time, not only to go through their, on each side, their prepared statements and their talking points, but to really have a serious exchange and let it develop as it goes along. No Chinese leader has been willing to do that with an American leader in the past. So this suggests that President Xi has confidence that he can handle this kind of open-ended discussion, but it also means that this is an extraordinary venue, an extraordinary opportunity that may produce a very good new momentum and new thinking about the relationship.

Or again, it may go sour. It may be that these two men talk and one or both decides that I do understand where their guy's coming from, and frankly that's a big problem for us.

SIMON: Ken Leiberthal, senior fellow in foreign policy in global economy and development at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for being with us.

LIEBERTHAL: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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