Yet, Xi is also seen as a nationalist willing to defend what he considers China's core interests whatever the cost to the country's overseas reputation. Beijing is locked in territorial feuds with Japan and several Southeast Asian nations that threaten to draw in the U.S. and has refused to follow the West in efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Engagement with Washington is also dogged by skepticism over America's new Asia-Pacific security focus that has fueled Chinese fears of encirclement, as well as the ages-old ideological battles over human rights and democracy. Intent on seizing the title of Asia's dominant power, Beijing has bitterly criticized moves by the U.S. to reassert its presence in the region through strengthened relations with friendly states, including a decision to base U.S. Marines in northern Australia.
In an interview on Australian television last week, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said it was still too early to read Xi despite having spent hours with him in both the U.S. and in China. Campbell said Xi was "about the most guarded individual that I interacted with."
"Part of our relationship is based on trust and confidence and very deep economic and cultural engagement, and part of it has clear components of distrust and uncertainty," Campbell said.
Xi is taking a safe course for his first trip abroad, heading next week to a fellow critic of the West, Russia, on his first overseas visit as president. That will be followed by meetings in South Africa with heads of other emerging economies.
Xi isn't scheduled to meet with Obama until a gathering of the G20 nations next September in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Washington and Beijing have fundamental differences over human rights, intellectual property rights, fair trade and the level of responsibility in trying to end the conflict in Syria and curb international nuclear proliferation. But both sides will probably allow those fundamental differences to go unresolved for now, said Yu Maochun, an expert on Chinese politics at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
"Leaders of both countries have labored diligently to maintain or manage a stable Sino-U.S. relationship that is based on some shaky foundations, but we loathe to work on the fundamentals," Yu said.
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