President Obama will engage in "direct and candid discussions about cybersecurity" with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a two-day summit in California this week, White House officials said Tuesday, but with the Asian nation unwilling to even acknowledge its spying, prospects for a major breakthrough remain dim.
The meetings on Friday and Saturday at the tony Sunnylands estate are being billed by the White House as far more than ceremonial, a rare opportunity for Obama and the newly elected Xi to air grievances privately as the two nations' agendas become increasingly intertwined.
With China connected to a growing number of hackings at U.S. companies, Obama is facing growing calls to get tough with the rising superpower. Obama has also been hammered for not doing enough to rein in China's currency manipulation and secure Chinese support in dealing with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
A White House official said the president believes the talks will prove "less scripted than the formalities of a state visit." But administration officials declined to say whether Obama expected to reach a concrete pact with Xi on cyber-espionage.
"Governments are responsible for cyber-attacks that take place within their borders," a White House official said, sidestepping the question in a background briefing with reporters ahead of the trip. "There's a responsibility for governments to uphold the rules of the road as it relates to digital infrastructure."
Some analysts said it was naive to expect a mea culpa from China, particularly when the United States uses many of the very cyber techniques for which it is deriding the Asian country.
"There is little utility in complaining about Chinese efforts to steal U.S. political and military secrets -- all nations do that, and none would ever agree to limit these efforts," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution.
"[Obama] should highlight the importance of cooperation to defend against attacks on critical infrastructure by terrorist organizations that threaten both of our countries -- and he should encourage U.S.-China cooperation on combating criminal activity that utilizes cyber tools," said Lieberthal.
White House officials have long planned for the rising importance of Asia, but four and a half years into Obama's presidency, the issue has repeatedly been eclipsed by domestic matters and a rising tide of national security concerns across the Arab Spring.
However, some said Obama could no longer afford to just pay lip service to China.
"The time for talk is over; the time for action is here," said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. "China must begin to play by the rules it agreed to when it joined the World Trade Organization. It must implement and adhere to the rule of law with regard to commercial activities, cyberspace and human rights, and it must become a responsible stakeholder in the world community."
During the two-day gathering, Obama and Xi will field questions from reporters, participate in a working dinner and meet together several times. Sensing a more willing partner in Xi than previous Chinese leaders -- thanks in part to the Chinese president's stern rebuke of North Korea -- U.S. officials moved the meeting up to June, just months after Xi took over.