BEIJING – As Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to Washington this week, the outlook for relations is decidedly murkier than when he hosted President Barack Obama at their last summit less than a year ago.
Tensions are rising over allegations of Beijing-directed cyberattacks on the U.S. and China's moves to assert its South China Sea territorial claims. Much of the American public sees China as an economic threat and criticisms are rising over a sweeping crackdown on civil rights.
"U.S. suspicions regarding Chinese intentions are growing," said Aaron L. Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
"The atmosphere surrounding this summit may be more negative than any in the post-Tiananmen period," Friedberg said, referring to China's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989 that marked the nadir in relations.
At the same time, belief in China's inexorable rise has been shaken by a stock market plunge and an economic slowdown that have sent shockwaves through global markets. And last month's catastrophic chemical warehouse explosion in a city just east of Beijing that killed 173 people have also underscored concerns about corruption and incompetence, increasing doubts about the viability of China's model of authoritarian governance.
Circumstances were different when the two leaders met in November at an Asia-Pacific summit in Beijing. Then, they could point to a much-heralded consensus on climate change, while China had just recently taken part in the premier U.S. naval exercise in the Pacific and appeared to be assuming greater responsibility for the global commons.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
Not all is gloomy. Beijing and Washington have found common cause in restraining Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambitions, even if China has been unable to restart six-nation talks with Pyongyang.
"We should actually take a closer look at any kind of possible cooperation, to leverage our resources and to do the utmost," Xi's chief foreign policy adviser, State Counselor Yang Jiechi said in a recent interview with the official China Daily newspaper.
In Washington, meaningful discussions are expected on trade, North Korea and Iran. U.S. officials say they have little hope for major breakthroughs on the tough issues bedeviling ties, but that there may be conciliatory gestures such as restarting dialogue on cybersecurity and a pact on avoiding unintended incidents between military aircraft.
"To me, the most important thing about the meeting is that it is an acknowledgement of the importance of the relationship," said University of Virginia professor of foreign affairs and China expert Brantly Womack. Other than that, it will be mostly posturing, Womack said: "I imagine it will be more light-sabre poses than deliverables."
Chinese officials and government-backed scholars say that the world's top economies should maintain close contact and operate under a new "major power" relationship, a concept that seeks to bring China up to parity with the U.S.
"The key is that the both sides need to make concessions and the meeting is a venue for negotiation," said Zhu Feng, a Peking University expert on China-U.S. relations.
Before arriving in Washington on Friday, Xi is scheduled to attend business-related events in Seattle. After meeting Obama, he travels to New York to deliver a speech before the U.N. General Assembly the following Monday.
For Xi, who took over as president in 2013, the visit comes as his standing both at home and abroad has grown slightly more ambiguous.
Earlier this month, he presided over a massive military parade in Beijing that showcased the growing might of the People's Liberation Army. However, while a few luminaries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended, most leaders of the world's major democracies stayed away, with the U.S. sending only its Beijing ambassador.
The event was a hit among the Chinese public, but it was criticized abroad as threatening in appearance and unhelpful to reconciliation with World War II antagonist Japan.
The parade came on the heels of a Chinese stock market plunge, eroding trade figures, and an unexpected currency devaluation, prompting concerns about the state of the world's second-largest economy. The warehouse explosion in Tianjin also prompted questions about the strength of government institutions.
"The Communist Party regime's reputation for competent economic management has taken a hit. Still, Xi appears to be firmly in control for now," said Princeton's Friedberg.
At home, Xi's enduring strengths include his total authority over the military and security services and a growing cult of personality. That's allowed him to pursue a thorough campaign against corruption, while pressing a wide-ranging crackdown on Western democratic concepts and non-governmental, religious and other groups outside party control. Scores of human rights lawyers have been questioned or detained. Some have disappeared.
Overseas, it's a different story. His visit comes as Obama is under growing pressure — from Congress, parts of the military and intelligence community — to take a tougher stance on China.
Rights groups have called on Obama to press Xi over the human rights crackdown. On a visit to China last month, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein urged China to end a campaign of cross removals and church demolitions and end harassment of members of unregistered religious groups.
VIEWED WITH SUSPICION
The latest survey of U.S. attitudes toward China by the Pew Research Center showed that 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Beijing, continuing a rising trend dating back to 2010.
Topping those concerns are the $1.27 trillion in U.S. debt held by China and the loss of American jobs blamed on Chinese competition. Close behind are hacking attacks originating from China that American officials say are approaching epidemic levels, including the theft of millions of U.S. federal personnel records that American lawmakers have said was engineered by Beijing.
Yet, despite U.S. warnings of legal action, China has shown no serious sign of acting on Washington's concerns, preferring to portray itself as a victim of hacking.
And while exchanges between their militaries have grown more frequent, Washington still has grave doubts about Beijing's intentions. The Sept. 3 military parade featured upgraded bombers and a pair of anti-ship ballistic missiles that analysts say could pose a direct threat to the U.S. Navy, American bases in Asia and to allies such as Japan and the Philippines.
Also of recent concern has been China's program of turning reefs in the South China Sea into islands complete with airstrips capable of accommodating those bombers.
Washington has repeatedly called on Beijing to halt such moves, only to be told they're not a threat and not of U.S. concern.
"The United States is not part of these disputes, and we do hope that the United States does not get involved," foreign affairs adviser Yang said in the newspaper interview.
The level of distrust, especially over hacking and espionage, was displayed in a unique way recently when the U.S. State Department ended a decades-long tradition of housing top officials at the iconic Waldorf-Astoria hotel while they are in New York.
No reason was given for the change, although officials pointed to Hilton Worldwide's sale of the hotel to a Chinese insurance conglomerate in a deal that prompted concerns over Chinese eavesdropping.