Patrick Brown: Is the world ready for an informal China?

The two-day 'shirtsleeve summit' between Barack Obama and China's Xi Jinping that begins today in California is being billed as a fresh start for the wary superpowers. It will be nothing of the sort, says Patrick Brown. But China wants to make more than just a fashion statement.

Barack Obama and China's Xi Jinping meet today in California for a two-day 'shirtsleeve summit'

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, smell the coffee, well the flowers anyway, during a visit to Costa Rica earlier this week. (Reuters)

According to the script being enthusiastically pitched by Washington, the U.S. and China are on the verge of a Fresh Start.

Their relationship, according to the script, has grown stale. They keep on doing the same old things in the same old places.

For decades, for example, they have been meeting in Washington and Beijing, striding up fusty old red carpets, inspecting honour guards, proposing dull toasts at state banquets and issuing joint public statements about free and frank discussions on topics of mutual interest.

It's time for a change!

And so it is that presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will meet today and Saturday, not at the White House but at the sumptuous Sunnylands estate in California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

Sunnylands, which used to be the home of the publishing tycoon, diplomat and Republican stalwart Walter Annenberg, is described as a magical oasis steeped in history.

Indeed, Richard Nixon went there to drown his sorrows after he left the White House in disgrace in 1974. Bill and Hillary Clinton were there for Valentine's Day in 1995, and Frank Sinatra married the last of his four wives, the former Mrs. Zeppo Marx, at the estate in 1976.

As if such a glorious and romantic history were not enough to cast a happy spell over the two presidents' lost weekend together, the wealth and sophistication of the Annenbergs has left a legacy of fabulous hospitality.

Vanity Fair reports that each guest room is provided with a jar of jelly beans that matches the exquisite colour scheme of the decor.

Meeting in such a paradise, enchanted by the sunny optimism of California, so the script goes, the two presidents will fling their neckties aside, roll up their sleeves, and bond as only buddies in a Hollywood movie can.

Sitting in front of a cozy fire to ward off the desert's evening chill, Barack and Jinping — dare we hope for 'Barry' and 'J.P'? — will talk into the early hours, and make the world a better place.

Regrettably, reality is already intruding upon the script.

A limited bromance

For one thing, Xi Jinping will not climb upstairs, exhausted by the long hours of intimate fireside chat, to enjoy a colour-coordinated jelly bean feast before lapsing into a dreamless sleep.

He's staying in a nearby hotel, because he thinks Sunnyland will be bugged.

It's been a spring for presidential tetes-a-tetes. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, pose with French President Francois Hollande and his partner Valerie Trierweiler outside the Great Hall of the People, in April. (Reuters)

He's right, of course, and if I were him I'd be careful what I said in the Indian Wells Hyatt as well.

What's more, any hopes that the budding bromance between Obama and Xi would be matched by a similar bonding between their wives, Michelle and Liyuan, have been dashed.

The U.S. First Lady is staying back in Washington to be with her daughters as they wrap up the school year.

Still, China has been doing some script-writing of its own, and agreed to the Sunnyland scenario because it fits well with its efforts to emphasize that President Xi's 10-year mandate is something of a new beginning for China.

In the past, Chinese leaders have insisted on punctilious adherence to the protocols of state visits because they felt the pomp and circumstance of such occasions demonstrated respect for China's growing importance as a world power.

Xi's agreement to an informal summit in an informal place — when, strictly speaking, it should have been Obama's turn to walk the red carpet at the Great Hall of the People — is intended to demonstrate greater personal and national self-confidence.

The key role played in these state visits by Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, is also a noted departure from the past.

A famous singer and public figure in her own right, she is the first wife of a Chinese leader to adopt the role of a "First Lady" since the ever-elegant Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a mistress of imperial style even after she and her husband, the general, retreated to Taiwan following the Communist victory in 1949.

Chinese audiences have become used to breathless reporting of Peng's outings and her clothes, and the lost opportunity for a comparison with Michelle Obama is a disappointment, which is already being interpreted as a deliberate snub.

Reality check

Reality intrudes even further once you look beyond the symbolism of the summit to the substance of the issues before the two countries and their leaders.

A key issue for the American side is the outstanding effrontery and success of China's electronic espionage, both military and industrial.

It is believed that the Chinese armed forces have hoovered up vast quantities of top-secret details of the most advanced American ships, planes, missiles and other defence information, along with helping Chinese firms hack into the computers of just about all of the Fortune 500 U.S. corporations.

Aside from the critical importance such information has for maintaining China's economic resurgence, and keeping the Communist Party in power, China does not really believe it's doing anything wrong, or different from other countries, in picking up secrets that are, so to speak, left lying around for the taking.

China and the U.S. also hold incompatible views on many topics, such as the Middle East, North Korea, human rights, the U.S. role in Asia (particularly in trying to renew or forge trade relationships with everybody but China), and China's role just about everywhere.

Obama's first meeting with then vice-president Xi, in Beijing in November 2009. (Reuters)

While it's unrealistic, even comical, to suggest that changing the style and location of a summit will forge important new agreements, there is nevertheless a serious purpose to this Sunnyland summit.

Xi Jinping is just beginning his decade-long mandate, and Obama is just beginning his second term.

Given the range of differences between the two countries, and the heavy consequences of any miscalculation by either side as China goes through some economic and military growing pains, one has to applaud an attempt to have a grown-up conversation about managing the relationship, instead of rehashing old grievances or clinking glasses in cryptic toasts.

As for breakthroughs, we'll have to wait for Hollywood to make the movie.