Obama-Xi meeting in Calif. sets low-key tone

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China President Xi Jinping (AP Photo)

China President Xi Jinping (AP Photo)

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) — A sprawling California desert estate built by billionaire philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg is a place where political powerbrokers once discussed critical issues of the day and where royalty — real and Hollywood — soaked up sun and golfed on a private, nine-hole course.

Four years after Leonore Annenberg’s death, the aptly named Sunnylands is beginning a new foray into international diplomacy by hosting two days of talks between President Barack Obama and newly minted Chinese President Xi Jinping. The high-profile meeting in the low-key setting dovetails with the Annenbergs’ vision of their winter home as a future “Camp David of the West” for leaders from the Pacific Rim.

The estate’s vast collection of Chinese art, including a cloisonné collection dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties; a Chinese-themed pavilion; and President Richard Nixon’s own fondness for the property should all appeal to the delegation from China, where Nixon is considered a hero for opening the country to the West.

The single-story home, designed by renowned architect A. Quincy Jones, took three years to build and is considered a gem of mid-century modernist architecture, with stone walls of Mexican lava, marble tile and floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the space with natural light. Framed vistas showcase the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains in the distance, and the roof’s unique pink hue evokes the soft pastels of a desert sunset.

“It’s a 20th century oasis. It’s green and lush and it really makes anyone who goes there feel as if they’ve left the regular world and entered into something serene and amazingly beautiful,” said Janice Lyle, director of Sunnylands Center & Gardens. “There is an element that allows people to relax, to be direct and to connect in very human ways.”

The fact that the first presidential meeting since a major makeover at Sunnylands is between the leader of China and the leader of the United States is almost a completion of the things the Annenbergs believed in, said Geoffrey Cowan, president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. “I think this is their dream come true.”

The decision to hold the summit in California, while unusual, was likely intended to allow both leaders to hash out critical national security and trade-related issues far from the political fishbowl of a world capitol or a multi-national summit such as the G20, said Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in Chinese politics.

The meeting is especially interesting given recent tensions between the U.S. and China over accusations of cyber-hacking, disputes over intellectual property and mounting regional tensions over North Korea and the South China Sea, he said.

The small, informal nature is something the Chinese call “shirt sleeves diplomacy,” experts said.

“You do want it outside the glare of Washington where you can actually get down to brass tacks a lot better,” Rosen said. “In Washington, you’ve got every congressional leader who wants an appointment to see him, everyone wants to be invited to the state dinner and there are press conferences all the time. There’s a lot of hoopla.”

At least one China-watcher, however, said the “soft” setting sends the wrong message when the U.S. has a number of serious concerns about currency manipulation, human rights, cyber hacking and intellectual property.

“Sunnylands is like a non sequitur,” said Peter Navarro, a business professor at the University of California, Irvine and a China critic who directed a film called “Death by China.”

“I buy the symbolism, but the symbolism is just wrong,” he said. “It’s a soft, come-let-us-reason-together symbolism at a time when what we really need to do is crack down.”

Walter Annenberg, who died in 2002, expanded his father’s newspaper business into a vast media empire that also included TV stations, magazines and TV Guide, one of his biggest moneymakers. During the years, the Annenbergs donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charitable foundations, universities, museums and public education.

In the 1960s, the couple built Sunnylands as their winter home and conceived of it as an oasis in the desert east of Los Angeles, with 200 acres of verdure carved out of an arid expanse that roadrunners and rattlesnakes once called home.

The centerpiece is a 25,000-square-foot house with 22 bedrooms, two guest wings and three guest cottages. It’s surrounded by the golf course, 11 lakes and sprawling gardens.

Over the decades, that luxurious setting attracted a parade of celebrity guests, including seven former and sitting U.S. presidents, U.S. Supreme Court justices, Queen Elizabeth II, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Fred Astaire, Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart. Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife, Barbara, at Sunnylands, and President Ronald Reagan celebrated New Year’s Eve 18 times at the mansion near Palm Springs.

Nixon, a frequent guest and close Annenberg friend, fled to the secluded estate to lick his wounds after resigning in 1974 and wrote in the guest book: “When you’re down, you find out who your real friends are.”

Sunnylands was placed in trust in 2009 after Leonore Annenberg’s death then opened to the public last year for the first time after a multi-million dollar renovation intended to transform it from a private Shangri La to the international diplomatic retreat the couple so desired.

The talks between Obama and Xi will be the first presidential visit to Sunnylands in its reincarnation and the first meeting between the two world leaders since Xi was installed in March. The retreat has also hosted a meeting of top leaders from the U.S. and Mexico since it opened to the public in February 2012.

For many China scholars, the summit at Sunnylands brings to mind a visit in communist China between another U.S. president and another Chinese leader more than four decades ago — a visit that is now seen as pivotal in the arc of U.S.-China relations.

In 1972, Nixon spent a week with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and other top leaders during what was the first U.S. presidential visit to that country. Nixon called the visit “the week that changed the world.”

The hours they spent together informally led to breakthroughs in formal meetings, said Clayton Dube, executive director of the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute.

Those preparing for this weekend’s summit hope that Nixon’s large footprint at the former Annenberg home will remind the Chinese delegation of that shared history and make the talks productive.

Nixon wrote his 1974 State of the Union there and named Annenberg to a key British ambassadorship in 1969. The estate also features a collection of more than 1,000 letters to and from the now-disgraced 37th president.

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