It's been called the single most important diplomatic event of the year and compared to some of the Cold War's highest-profile U.S.-Soviet summits. The two days of meetings between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are also a break from the pomp of formal state visits, with their long list of events dictated by protocol. But the stakes are no less high: two countries with enormous military and economic muscle will seek, over the course of the weekend, to warm a relationship that has grown cool.
Sometime around 4 p.m. Friday, the leaders will shake hands at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for about six hours of discussion. It is a particularly lengthy encounter by the fast-moving standards of presidential agendas – but fulfilling the high hopes for the meeting won't happen quickly. The desert setting, many hope, will provide space for the world's leading powers to find some common ground on a raft of irritants that have eroded goodwill. "The two sides have been talking past each other for the last little while," said David Mulroney, Canada's former ambassador to China who is now with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Cybersecurity is a primary concern, with growing allegations that China is directing state-sanctioned hacking at U.S. political, business and media targets. Foreign investment, too, is likely to generate debate, as are the varying approaches to regimes in Syria and North Korea. The U.S. has made it clear that Mr. Obama will speak to human-rights issues in China and military operations in the Pacific. China, meanwhile, has struck an optimistic tone, with state media reporting that Premier Li Keqiang recently said the meeting "will chart a blueprint for a new type of bilateral relationship that features equality, trust, tolerance, co-operation and common prosperity."
There is little doubt that Chinese attempts to hack into U.S. corporate and state secrets will headline the discussion. In March, U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon issued a stern rebuke against "cyberintrusions emanating from China at a very large scale. The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country. … We will take action to protect our economy against cyberthreats," he said.
Mr. Donilon took an active role in arranging the California summit, further emphasizing the weight cybersecurity issues will be given between the two presidents. At the same time, China has begun to call out hacking efforts from the U.S., with state media reports that officials there have documented numerous serious attacks.
This week, comments in China Daily seemed to offer hope for a path forward, with comments from Huang Chengqing, director of China's national network security and monitoring agency, who said: "The importance of handling Internet security cases keeps rising, but the issue can only be settled through communication, not confrontation."
China's rising economic might has brought – and bought – major gains in its global influence. Mr. Xi spent this week in the Caribbean and Latin America, strengthening ties in the U.S. backyard. The White House, meanwhile, has made a "pivot" toward Asia – intended to direct more U.S. military and economic clout across the Pacific – one of its primary foreign policy objectives. China has responded with discomfort, concerned that the U.S. is seeking to hem it in.
Underlying the concern is a high-stakes jostling for primacy. "The relationship is now predominantly competitive and secondarily co-operative," David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, wrote recently. "Washington and Beijing now compete strategically, militarily, economically, diplomatically, politically, culturally, and ideologically."
China's vast purchases of U.S. Treasuries have interwoven the fortunes of the two countries in a fashion unusual for two superpowers. Mr. Xi "is coming to this having talked about a new type of great power relationship," said Mr. Mulroney, the former Canadian ambassador. "It's important that President Xi explains what this concept means." At the same time, he said, the U.S. will seek to maintain its alpha position. The U.S. economy, after all, still outweighs China's two-to-one.
"The fine line America has to walk is to give China the tremendous respect it deserves without ignoring the fact China is still a regional power, it has tremendous internal issues and it is currently posing some challenges to the international system," Mr. Mulroney said. "The Chinese objective would be to use the meeting … to acquire a position it might not normally achieve."
China's ongoing foreign investments in the U.S. leapt back to the fore last week when Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. agreed to buy pork giant Smithfield Foods Inc. for $4.7-billion (U.S.). The acquisition of an American food icon renewed foreign takeover concerns, but also highlighted continuing concerns about reciprocity: Would an American company be able to consummate such a deal with a Chinese firm?
At the same time, the Smithfield deal has brought to light continuing Chinese concerns with how the U.S. treats foreign acquisitions. U.S. takeover reviews are ostensibly meant to sort through national-security concerns, but "it's a little bit hard to claim that national security is a key part of a pork plant," said Gordon Houlden, a long-time Canadian diplomat who now heads the China Institute at the University of Alberta. The topic is therefore "a tricky one," he said.
In a recent opinion piece, former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and foreign-policy expert Ian Bremmer noted that Mr. Xi can "earn more confidence in Washington by ensuring that China continues to open domestic markets to American companies, by enforcing intellectual property protections and by maintaining a level competitive playing field."
Foreign policy (Syria, North Korea, South China Sea)
The U.S. has increasingly sought Chinese backing for its positions on delicate dealings with hostile regimes. It has at the same time watched with concern as China asserts greater dominance in maritime boundary disputes, particularly in the South China Sea.
While there are signs China may be growing more concerned about North Korea's conduct – suggesting the possibility of some alignment – resolution in other regions may prove difficult. In Syria, China has sided with Russia, a long-time backer of the Assad regime, which the U.S. wants gone. In the South China Sea, China has raised concern that the U.S. is acting to constrain Chinese interests.
The fundamental issue may be one of trust, which has taken on new importance in the context of growing Chinese military might. Last week, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel called for "a continuous and respectful dialogue." Attaining that "requires building trust and reducing the risk of miscalculation, particularly between our militaries," he said. He added: "It is important for both the United States and China to provide clarity and predictability about each other's current and future strategic intentions."
In 1985, Mr. Xi visited Muscatine, Iowa, as part of a delegation, a place he returned to on a U.S. trip last year. He has, through those visits, shown a knack for making himself at home in the United States. Muscatine boasts that Mark Twain once called it home, and Mr. Xi has toured the Mississippi, caught a baseball game, visited farms and a greenhouse. He even, in his first visit, slept in a child's bedroom decorated with Star Trek figurines.
And he and Mr. Obama are not complete strangers. They met for 90 minutes in the Oval Office last year, and held what the White House called a "substantive and fairly extended conversation" in March, around the time Mr. Xi was named president. He and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden have also spent several days together, in both countries. And the retreat setting is designed to minimized stilted formalities in hopes more personal interaction can flourish.
Yes, these are the leaders of what some now call the G2, and there will be no room on earth with a greater concentration of power. But there's an element of Big Brother to it, too. Will they like each other? Or at very least, respect each other enough to be collegial? Can they talk basketball or maybe even dish on Steve Buscemi, since Mr. Obama has called Boardwalk Empire one of his favourite TV shows?
The tenor of the conversation, particularly one held in the early days of mandates for both leaders, stands to factor heavily in Sino-American relations in coming years. "Perhaps the most important purpose of the summit is to enable each leader to develop a serious sense of the other," Kenneth Lieberthal, a former senior director for Asia on the National Security Council who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a blog post. "Personal chemistry between leaders means a lot in major power relations."