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In California, Obama and Xi seek to build new ties

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Seeking a fresh start to a complex relationship, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are retreating to a sprawling desert estate for two days of talks on high-stakes issues, including cybersecurity and North Korea's nuclear threats.

Obama's efforts to press Xi to halt China's alleged hacking against the U.S. could be overshadowed by revelations that Obama's own administration has been secretly seizing phone records from millions of Americans.

There are significant differences between China's reported cyberattacks against U.S. interests and the Obama administration's court-approved domestic surveillance program. But both underscore the vast technological — and in some cases, legal — powers that governments have to access information covertly from individuals, companies and other governments.

The setting for the talks that begin Friday is the 200-acre Sunnylands estate just outside Palm Springs, Calif., marking a departure from the formality that typically greets Chinese leaders during state visits at the White House. U.S. officials hope the relaxed atmosphere will facilitate a more candid and free-flowing discussion between the leaders of the world's two largest economies.

Obama was due to arrive Friday afternoon following a health-care event and a Democratic fundraiser in Northern California. He and Xi will hold a bilateral meeting Friday evening, then take questions from reporters. They'll also have discussions during a working dinner Friday night and hold additional talks Saturday morning.

The media availability with reporters will likely mark Obama's first public comments on the revelation that the National Security Agency, under the cover of a top-secret court order, is accessing the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that the NSA phone record program is a "critical tool" in keeping Americans safe.

"The top priority of the president of the United States is the national security of the United States and protecting this homeland," Earnest said. "And we need to make sure that we have the tools we need to confront the threat posed by terrorists, to disrupt plots that may exist and to otherwise protect the homeland."

The debate over U.S. government-sanctioned surveillance will be juxtaposed with Obama's warnings to Xi against Chinese spying on the American government and businesses.

China has publicly denied that it is using computer network technology to spy on the U.S. But Obama administration officials say they've seen some signals in private meetings with Chinese counterparts that Beijing may be ready to address the issue.

The economy is also expected to be a major topic during the talks, with Xi likely to press China's claims of business discrimination in U.S. markets. The leaders are also certain to discuss North Korea's provocative nuclear threats.

Obama and Xi first met before the Chinese leader took office in March. They weren't slated to meet again until September, on the margins of an international economic summit in Russia, but both countries saw a need to move up their first meeting of the year, given the myriad issues that define their relationship.

The China summit kicks off a heavy foreign policy-focused stretch for Obama that includes trips to Europe and Africa later this month. It also comes as the White House grapples not only with the NSA disclosure, but also controversies over the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative political groups, the Justice Department's seizure of phone records from Associated Press journalists, and the resurgent investigation into the attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

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