06/06/2013 10:11 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

California Kings

A summit between the leaders of the world's top two powers comes amid rising tensions between them.

China's president, Xi Jinping, meets his U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama, in California on June 7-8, seeking to ease some of the tensions generated by China's efforts to reshape the international order. But even if the two leaders are able to develop a personal chemistry, there is little hope that Mr. Obama will be able to persuade China's leader to adopt less aggressive tactics in its territorial disputes.

The summit between the two presidents is a relatively informal affair, a move that fits well with Mr Xi's carefully cultivated image in China as a no-frills "regular guy"; the pomp of a full state visit would in any case have sat oddly with his campaign against government extravagance. It is less clear whether the low-key approach will be sufficient to generate the sort of personal chemistry that observers hope will lubricate future dealings. Mr Obama is usually more renowned for his cerebral approach rather than his personal warmth.

Leaning Against the Wind From the West

On the U.S. side there are many issues that officials will hope to raise. Both countries share many frustrations over North Korea's behaviour, but it would be overly optimistic to expect any shift in China's position in the near future. Similarly on other security issues, such as Iran's nuclear programme and Syria's civil war, China's perspectives are coloured by an instinctive mistrust of U.S. policy that often manifests as a tendency to lean in the opposite direction. If the two presidents can build trust, perhaps this tendency can be reduced in the future, but the prospects remain slim.

China's officially sponsored hacking and spying has garnered many headlines in the run-up to the summit. It is no surprise that Mr Obama is likely to raise the subject, especially given that China's activities in this area seem to have become more brazen in the last year or two. To an extent, the Chinese government's protests over the accusations are justifiable: anyone who thinks that the US government -- and, indeed, many others in the West -- are not engaged in similar activities is probably naïve. However, it is the flagrant and multi-faceted nature of China's cyber-attacks, on targets ranging from companies to governments to journalists, that has raised particular concerns.

Changing the Facts on the Ground

The mentality behind such an approach is mirrored in China's foreign policy more generally. China desires to be seen as a new global power, comparable to the U.S. In many ways this will be welcome: China is already playing a more important role in fields like peacekeeping, and its investment is helping to drive growth in countries around the world. But as it has begun to throw its weight around, disputes with its neighbours have been escalated. In the South China Sea, East China Sea, and recently on the Indian border, its forces have been challenging the status quo in order to give greater backing to China's territorial claims. This has been most evident in case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, where China has pushed back hard against Japan's previous de-facto control of the area under dispute.

For Mr Xi, one of the key goals of the meeting in California will be to win US acquiescence over China's agenda in its neighbourhood. Whether or not he genuinely intends to alter the "facts on the ground", or simply to use a nationalist foreign policy to strengthen his hand against critics of his domestic policy, the Chinese president is playing a risky game. The US has shown little appetite to withdraw from East Asia in order to accommodate China's rise, and its alliances with countries like Japan and the Philippines remain strong, as evidenced by the so-called "pivot to Asia".

Unintended Consequences

It remains unlikely that China would risk a genuine conflict over its territorial claims, especially those in the East and South China Seas, which would likely have a disastrous impact on its sea-borne trade and its economy. Yet, with its gaze focused on the U.S. there remains a danger that the Chinese government may miscalculate the potential for other actors in the region to escalate an incident on their own. If one of its allies was drawn into a military clash with China, it would be hard for the U.S. to avoid becoming entangled.

As the tensions between the two countries mount, it is essential that they improve the channels of communication between each other. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains weak within China, making direct exchanges between senior officials all the more important. Yet especially in the field of military-to-military contacts, relations are still underdeveloped. Mr Xi's visit sets a good precedent, but in the next few years a lot more like will be needed.

Duncan Innes-Ker is Senior Editor/Economist for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit.