Obama, Chinese President Xi to Discuss South China Sea, North Korea

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Thursday, March 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Thursday, March 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The White House said Thursday that President Barack Obama would meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Washington, D.C., next week on the sidelines of a nuclear summit to discuss "areas of disagreement" on the South China Sea, North Korea and other matters.

Xi's hastily arranged visit, which was only officially announced Wednesday, will afford the Chinese leader an opportunity to "draw world attention" to the divide between the U.S. and China "on hot issues such as South China Sea disputes and cyber security," China's official Xinhua news agency said.

Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. was "re-assessing" China's invitation to the biannual RIMPAC, or Rim of the Pacific, naval training exercises off Hawaii this summer in response to its aggressive activities and island-building in the South China Sea.

In a statement, the White House said that Obama and Ji would hold a bilateral meeting next Thursday on the margins of the three-day 2016 National Security Summit that was scheduled to begin the same day at the Washington Convention Center.

"This bilateral meeting will present an opportunity to advance U.S.-China cooperation on a range of issues of mutual interest, while also enabling President Obama and President Xi to address areas of disagreement constructively," the White House said.

Xi's ostensible main reason for coming to Washington was to attend the summit of more than 40 world leaders on stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons and material and preventing the smuggling of nuclear material that could be used by terrorist groups for so-called "dirty bombs."

The White House said that the summit would focus on "the evolving threat" of nuclear terrorism and identifying steps "to minimize the use of highly-enriched uranium, secure vulnerable materials, counter nuclear smuggling and deter, detect, and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism."

However, Xi has come under increasing pressure at home from the downturn in China's economy and his suppression of dissent, and he could be seeking to offset internal disputes by presenting a forceful image on the world stage.

Four staff members of the Chinese Wujie News outlet have reportedly been missing for a week since publishing a stunning letter calling on Xi to resign for the good of the country, Agence France Presse reported.

In the lead up to his Washington visit, Xi has conducted a series of meetings and addresses urging the People's Liberation Army to remain "combat ready" and true to what Xinhua called "Marxist military theory." Perhaps taking a cue from the U.S., Xi also stressed "jointness" in operations by the Chinese army, navy and the air forces.

China has thus far ignored the complaints of the U.S. and regional allies over China's efforts to assert hegemony over the South China Sea and a sprawl of uninhabited reefs and island chains, such as the Spratlys and the Paracels.

In another sign of Chinese assertiveness, Xi earlier this month warned the incoming, independence-minded government of Taiwan that China would use force if necessary to prevent formal secession from the mainland.

Xi told delegates at the annual meeting of China's rubber-stamp parliament that Beijing would "resolutely contain Taiwan independence secessionist activities in any form," and would never allow the "historical tragedy" of a split to occur.

In testimony last month to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, warned that China was escalating its military buildup in the South China Sea and expressed concerns about the ability of the U.S. to counter China's aggression.

"In my opinion China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea," Harris said. "You'd have to believe in a flat earth to believe otherwise."

Harris spoke following reports that satellite images showed China had installed a surface-to-air missile battery on the Paracel Islands near Vietnam, and also was seeking to install a high-tech air search radar on one of its man-made islands in the Spratly Islands.

Harris said the U.S. needed to invest more in next-generation anti-surface missiles to counter China, noting that the Navy was still using the same weapons that were operational when he was a junior officer.

"When I started flying P-3s (Orion surveillance aircraft) in the 1970s, we had the Harpoon missile, and it's the same one we have today," Harris said.

Xi's visit will also give Obama a chance to press him on reining in the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, which has China as its only main ally. South Korea's military went on high alert this week following a series of threats from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to set off North Korea's fifth nuclear test and a series of short-range missile launches into the sea in response to renewed economic sanctions by the U.S. and the United Nations.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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