There is an old adage that the value of summits is in inverse proportion to the number of participants, and that is doubly true when the two countries involved are China and the US, partners in what is now the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Small wonder, then, the high level of anticipation ahead of the talks between presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping which began yesterday.
One reason is the very setting of the meeting: a private estate in Palm Springs, California, rather than the White House in Washington, with all its pomp and circumstance – the official dinners and guards of honour – that a recently arrived Chinese leader, keen to consolidate his power at home, might have been expected to prefer.
Then there is the person of Xi himself. Obama aides do not hide the frustration of their boss at the bland and formulaic style of his encounters with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Now there’s a palpable sense that the new leader, who already has all three main levers of power – the presidency, the Communist Party and the military – in his hands, is, to borrow the famous phrase once applied to Mikhail Gorbachev, “a man you can do business with”. Not that he is a Gorbachev-style reformer of communism; every sign is that Xi’s liberalism is strictly economic, not political. But he seems more confident and decisive, quicker on his feet, than most Chinese leaders.
Finally and most important, the two men have a great deal to discuss, at a moment when trust between their governments is at a very low ebb. Both sides have grievances, Beijing’s main one being its belief that Mr Obama’s proclaimed “pivot to Asia” is no more than an attempt to project US military power into its own backyard, in response to regional anxieties about Chinese expansionism. But Washington’s complaints are more specific.
At the top of the list is China’s officially sanctioned hacking of US government and corporate computer networks. Mr Obama has every right to demand, and expect, that this practice will cease. Then there are the familiar issues of Beijing’s disregard for international patent and intellectual property laws, and its manipulation of its currency, a prime cause of the massive trade imbalance between the two countries, as well as long-standing US criticism of China’s human rights record.
More generally, the feeling exists in Washington that China, although it is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, is free-riding on global security issues – taking an exclusively mercantilist and predatory approach to international affairs, turning a blind eye to trouble as long as Chinese economic interests can be advanced.
But as Obama and Xi meet, there are glimmers of promise. Washington and Beijing appear to have worked reasonably well together in the latest dramas over North Korea, nor is there the automatic antagonism that existed between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Chinese-American relationship is complicated: the two are not friends, but nor are they enemies. Sometimes they co-operate; sometimes they confront each other; always they are wary of each other. Above all, they are yoked together economically.
The results of the summit will not be immediately apparent, nor is success guaranteed. But if Obama and Xi can achieve a personal chemistry and trust, its consequences could be far reaching – for everyone.