China and the US know they need to have good relations. Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama have agreed to have a broad-based, co-operative relationship. Yet top-level meetings have been infrequent and when they do take place are overshadowed by regional tensions. Climate change and North Korea, the focus of US Secretary of State John Kerry's talks in Beijing last week, seemed of less importance than the maritime disputes, angry rhetoric over Beijing's air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and nationalism from Tokyo, Washington's top Asian ally.
The only concrete outcome of Kerry's visit was a deal for closer co-operation on climate change. Obama wants to forge an ambitious international pact at the UN climate summit in 2015. Progress on North Korea was less solid, with continuing disagreement on how denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is to be attained. This despite the North being believed to be on the verge of conducting more missile or nuclear tests.
China and the US are moving in the right direction on climate change. That they have agreed to work together is a positive step. Less beneficial, though, was that senior Chinese and American officials had met but failed to make significant progress on disputes in the East and South China seas that are causing soured regional relations. North Korea, despite its ever-present, nuclear-armed, threat, would seem the least of the worries; last week, it showed a modicum of friendliness towards rival South Korea by forging a deal on reunions of families.
US allies Japan and the Philippines, apart from having territorial disputes with China, have also been exchanging angry words. Washington has been unable to rein in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's nationalist rhetoric and actions, which have deepened rifts with China and South Korea. Senior American officials have also stepped up criticism over the ADIZ, sparking equally acerbic responses from Beijing. Kerry's failure in Beijing to make headway in lessening tensions highlights the challenges in building a new-look relationship.
Relations need a durable foundation. China and the US have more than 90 dialogue mechanisms, but senior leaders have to meet more often; Xi and Obama have met only once. (There will be at least three chances this year, the first at the nuclear security summit in The Hague next month). Military ties have to be more resilient. Economic dependencies have to be deepened. From co-operation will come greater trust.