BEIJING – The United States and China will spend time over the next couple of days testing whether their annual "Strategic and Economic Dialogue" can produce tough compromises or just serve as a venue to talk about greater cooperation.
The Obama administration comes with a clear set of priorities to this year's meeting in the Chinese capital: closer coordination against climate change, an end to Chinese industrial cyber-espionage and stricter rules governing maritime claims in Asia's contested, resource-rich seas.
But it's unclear whether Washington will be able to forge an effective agreement with Beijing in any of these areas.
All told, the two sides will canvass 60 topics when they meet Tuesday night through Thursday. Economic friction centers on the valuation of China's currency and claims by American companies of unfair market restrictions in China. Strategic discussions include the threat posed by nuclear-armed North Korea.
U.S.-China gatherings in recent years have vacillated between icy and warm. The dialogue two years ago in Beijing weathered the escape from house arrest by Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and a U.S. decision to grant him asylum. Last year in California, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to establish "a new model of major power relations."
Yet on many issues, the U.S. and China are mired in disagreement, reflecting natural friction between an established superpower and an emerging one.
The United States, with the world's biggest economy and strongest military, will be led this week by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
China's economy is set to surpass the U.S. in the coming decades and its armed forces are rapidly gaining strength. It will be represented by foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, the top American diplomat for Asia outlined one area where he hoped to see progress: the restart of a cybersecurity working group that China shut down after the U.S. indicted five Chinese military officers. The Obama administration accused the officers of hacking into American companies' computers to steal trade secrets. China demanded the charges be withdrawn; it has no plans to extradite the men.
Such behavior from China "risks undermining the support for the U.S.-China relationship among the U.S. and international business community," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said. He said Beijing must address the problem of cyber-espionage.
China isn't playing ball. Its communist government has fumed since the indictments were unsealed in May, ending talks that the U.S. had hailed as a diplomatic coup when they were set up after Obama's summit with Xi. Obama is expected to visit China again later this year.
With no cybersecurity breakthrough likely, senior U.S. officials traveling on Kerry's plane refused to outline what would constitute a successful result this week.
Instead, they stressed the long-term importance of the two countries working through their differences for the stability of each, and the rest of the world, noting how several issues have been settled over time.
For example, the proliferation of Chinese nuclear technology, a serious worry in the 1990s, is no longer a central U.S. concern.
The last year has been difficult for U.S.-Chinese cooperation. Beyond the cyber-hacking dispute, ties are strained by Beijing's actions in the South and East China seas.
American allies Japan and the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, have become increasingly worried by Chinese efforts to drill for oil or assert authority in waters they consider their own. China also has tried to enforce control over contested airspace.
A U.S. push to get China to agree with its neighbors on rules to settle territorial disputes has gained no ground, with Beijing dismissive of what it sees as American interference in its internal and regional affairs.
Progress this week could come on climate issues, said the U.S. officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly by name on the talks and demanded anonymity.
The U.S. and China have battled for years over how to rein in carbon emissions. While an accord is improbable on that front, the officials were optimistic of new cooperation on clean energy. They didn't elaborate.
They also suggested a toughening Chinese attitude emerging toward North Korea, given Xi's recent visit to South Korea. China could still oppose any harsh criticism of its ally in the joint statement expected at the end of the meeting.