President Xi Jinping’s ongoing nine-day trip to the United States is his first state visit to the country. He is being greeted with a 21-gun salute and attendant formalities and honors, but he is no stranger to his hosts. In 2013, he held a special informal summit with President Barack Obama at Sunnylands estate in California. Historically, such meetings were reserved for statesmen from the United States’ closest and most loyal allies, such as Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s 2006 private meeting with George W. Bush in Graceland or British prime minister David Cameron’s sojourn with Obama in 2012.

Framing U.S. ties with China as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” the Obama administration in 2013 displayed its renewed commitment to a robust bilateral engagement with Beijing. It offered a more “personal touch” to improve rapport between the heads of the world’s two most powerful nations. Although Obama openly admitted to “areas of tension” between the two countries, he studiously tried to emphasize areas of common concern, particularly in the realm of international trade, climate change, and cybersecurity.

This time around, however, there will be expectations that Obama and other U.S. officials will be more forthcoming and steadfast in trying to dissuade China from further provocative actions, including in maritime disputes in the East and South China seas. The legacy of Obama’s pivot, or rebalance, to Asia could very well be defined by this.

Areas of Potential Cooperation

 By all indications, cybersecurity will serve as a key theme during Xi’s visit to Washington. In recent years, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to accuse elements in China of engaging in corporate cyber-espionage and outright theft of sensitive military information, including designs of advanced aircrafts, from the Pentagon. The personal records of up to 22 million U.S. government employees have been allegedly hacked by Chinese elements. But there are signs of a potential Sino-American thaw on the issue.

During his visit this week to Seattle with Chinese business executives, Xi declared that China “will not in whatever form engage in commercial theft, and hacking against [other nation’s] government networks,” calling for punishment of cybercrimes in accordance with “relevant international treaties.” As the highlight of the summit, Xi and Obama are expected to sign a deal on corporate cyber-espionage, paving the way for a more comprehensive agreement on common rules of the road in the realm of cyber technology.

Obviously the United States has other major concerns, with economics and climate change also expected to dominate the summit. As the world’s leading source of carbon emissions, China is essential to any international effort at climate change mitigation, while Beijing’s recent decision to devalue its currency has raised concerns over a new round of currency wars.

The Obama administration will surely focus on constructive engagement with China, exploring various mechanisms to manage tension and optimize areas of shared interests. On leading international security issues such as the Iranian nuclear program, China has played a positive role in brokering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which most experts consider a trailblazing anti-proliferation agreement. And there are hopes that China will also aid international efforts at reining in North Korean belligerence. With respect to territorial and maritime disputes in the Western Pacific, however, Washington and China seem to have reached a deadlock.

Limits of Engagement

In 2013, Xi tried to signal China’s goodwill toward the United States by claiming, “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China.” Controversially, he also called for a “new model of great power relations.” Against the backdrop of rising territorial tensions in the Western Pacific, the statements reflected Beijing’s efforts to find a new modus vivendi with Washington on China’s terms.

U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines, which have been caught in bitter territorial and maritime disputes with China, quietly lamented Washington’s decision to eschew mention of the East and South China Sea disputes in formal statements. From their perspective, China was pushing for a de facto co-dominion with the United States in the Western Pacific, ostensibly at the expense of the territorial interests of smaller claimants in the area. Since the Sunnylands meeting, China has upped the ante by expanding reclamation activities in disputed areas and gradually establishing a sprawling network of advanced airstrips and military installations in the Paracel and Spratly island chains.

Since December 2013, China has reclaimed about 2,900 acres of land in the Spratlys, functionally (if not legally) transforming rocks and submerged atolls into full-fledged islands, with artificially-improved Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi reefs poised to host large airstrips that could support robust military operations in the area. China will soon be in a position to project power from these artificially-created islands. There is growing concern in the region that China is already establishing the skeleton of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea, which will threaten freedom of (civilian and military) overflight above some of the world’s most important sea lines of communication.

There are real fears that China will progressively tighten the noose around the supply-lines of other claimant states in the Spratlys. Allies such as the Philippines have accused China of imposing restrictions on its reconnaissance and resupply missions in the area, while Filipino troops stationed on Second Thomas Shoal have been confronting an on-again off-again Chinese blockade since 2013.

There is a grave sense of urgency, if not panic, among U.S. allies and partners in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China seas. Allies in Asia will anxiously watch whether the summit will pave the way for any tangible improvement in the situation and how forcefully Obama will raise the issue with his Chinese counterpart, who has adamantly opposed any U.S. involvement in the disputes. The pivot to Asia is after all about reaffirming the United States’ role as the anchor of stability in Asia.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.