Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
Virtually on the eve of Xi Jinping's visit to the United States, both the Chinese and U.S. governments took steps to ensure a smooth summit with Barack Obama. President Xi sent a special envoy, Politburo member Meng Jianzhu, to Washington to defuse the issue of cybersecurity and, the following week, the U.S. for the first time sent one of China's most wanted fugitives back to the country.
Although the official Chinese media reported that Mr. Meng and U.S. officials reached "important consensus on combatting cybercrimes," this contentious issue will doubtless still be high on the agenda when the two leaders meet Thursday and Friday. President Obama himself warned only days ago that his administration was preparing a series of measures against China over online attacks, but such steps won't be taken before the meetings with Mr. Xi.
Meanwhile, the repatriation of Yang Jinjun, one of China's 100 most-wanted fugitives abroad, saw a turnaround in Beijing's attitude, from badmouthing the United States for telling China not to send covert agents into the country in its attempt to repatriate suspects to praising Washington for its co-operation.
A related issue is China's continuing refusal to take back some 40,000 illegal immigrants on the grounds that there is no proof that they are Chinese nationals.
Other issues on the agenda will include the South China Sea, China's draft law for foreign NGOs, a bilateral investment treaty, climate change, human rights, North Korea, Taiwan and possibly Hong Kong.
There has been a sea change in the domestic American attitude toward China, and the business community, which in the past could always be counted on to argue against hardline U.S. positions so as not to jeopardize business opportunities, is no longer solidly pro-China. U.S. businesses now see a shrinking market share in China and the old enthusiasm is no longer there.
The successful conclusion of an investment treaty could change that, but that is not in the works since the Chinese so far have been insisting on a long "negative list" with many sectors barring foreign investment altogether.
However, the Obama administration is still very much invested in the policy of encouraging China to play a positive role internationally, and to co-operate with China where interests overlap and to manage differences where they don't.
The most substantive issue to be confronted is cybersecurity. The New York Times reported Sept. 20 that the U.S. is seeking an accord for cyberspace with China in which each country will pledge not to be the first to use cyberweapons to cripple the other's critical infrastructure during peacetime. This follows the theft of 22 million personal security files from the U.S. Office of Personnel and Management as a result of a large-scale cyberattacks traced back to China.
Ever since Mr. Obama sought to engage Mr. Xi on the cyber issue when they met in California in 2013, the Chinese have denied their military was involved and insisted that they themselves were victims of cyberattacks from the U.S.
A United Nations working group, involving experts from 20 countries, including both China and the United States, earlier this year adopted a non-binding code of conduct in which no state should allow activity that "intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public."
This code may well form the basis for a binding U.S.-Chinese accord on the issue. That would be a useful first step to agree on the rules of the road. However, cyberattacks are much more difficult to trace than conventional and nuclear attacks, and verification is much more of an issue than in the case of other attacks, especially when China is adamant that it has never engaged in such behaviour.
If the U.S. does have evidence of such Chinese conduct, it should push back by making it public rather than simply disclosing it to the Chinese side behind closed doors. Meanwhile, it has to do a much better job of protecting its own confidential information, rather than ask others to please not steal it.