When President Barack Obama hosts President Xi Jinping Thursday night for a private dinner, he will seek to use the personal relationship the two have fostered to reach across their countries' widening differences on military, economic and human-rights issues.
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The White House arranged the informal dinner--to be held at Blair House, a guest residence across from the White House on the night before the two leaders commence more formal sessions--so Mr. Obama could outline his longer-term vision for U.S.-China relations and try to tamp down recent tensions between the two countries.
The president will use the setting to "step back, look at the strategic context, acknowledge the differences and some of the tensions that are there, but also look for what are the opportunities for the next areas where we can cooperate," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
Specifically, he said, Mr. Obama will propose over dinner that the two countries work in unison to defuse tensions with North Korea, as well as on global health and development issues.
Friday's state visit, which includes a meeting between the two leaders, U.S. and Chinese delegations, a joint news conference and an elaborate dinner, comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. The two countries are increasingly at odds over high-stakes economic and cybersecurity issues, raising questions about whether the White House's investment in Mr. Obama's personal relationship with Mr. Xi is paying off.
"It's been decades since a meeting has been more important between the United States and China," said Kurt Campbell, a former top Obama aide for Asia.
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The White House has intensely focused on the men's relationship as a means to strengthen what they see as America's most important bilateral tie in the 21st century. Obama envoys moved early to cultivate Mr. Xi before he became China's president. Thursday will mark the seventh encounter between the two men since 2009, including a 2012 Oval Office meeting when Mr. Xi was vice president.
Their casual, tieless meeting in 2013 at the sprawling Sunnylands estate in California set the tone, White House officials say, for a rapport quite different from the much more formal one Mr. Obama had with China's previous president, Hu Jintao.
Meetings with Chinese leaders tend to feature "dueling monologues" rather than conversations and Mr. Hu almost never departed from his script, according to administration officials who observed them. Indeed, when Mr. Obama is tired and just wants to go through his talking points during a meeting, he is known to say: "I'm just going to do a Hu Jintao."
Mr. Xi still leans heavily on talking points, but he has more unscripted exchanges with Mr. Obama, particularly in the casual, one-on-one dinners, administration officials say. The two leaders also exchange letters, and spent five hours in a private dinner in Beijing last November that White House officials say helped finalize their announcement the next day setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But recent tensions between the U.S. and China underscore the limits of the White House effort to establish a personal connection with Mr. Xi.
"It's fair to say it hasn't been 100% successful," said Amy Celico, who formerly focused on China issues in the U.S. trade representative's office and is now a principal at the Albright Stonebridge Group. "You can't really create chemistry very easily." Ms. Celico said, when both leaders are balancing significant domestic political concerns.
For Mr. Obama, that has meant taking a tough line on China over its trade practices, economic initiatives and treatment of American businesses. In advance of Mr. Xi's visit, the White House threatened sanctions against Chinese state-owned enterprises and private companies that officials believe benefited from the cybertheft of U.S. corporate secrets. But the administration held off from imposing them in hopes of otherwise resolving the issue with Mr. Xi this week.
For Mr Xi, who came to power in 2012 pledging to fulfill a "China dream" of re-establishing his nation as a global military and economic power, the priority is to project an image of strength--and parity with Mr. Obama--back home. The trappings of a state visit to the White House will provide plenty of fodder for that goal, regardless of the policy outcomes during his stay.
One challenge for Mr. Obama as he seeks to continue shaping U.S.-China relations is his dwindling time in office. Mr. Xi could begin to invest elsewhere while Americans determine who will be Mr. Obama's successor, and some experts say he already has.
"I think it's pretty clear from what we've seen that President Xi doesn't see a great deal of value in investing in the Obama administration at this point," said Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.