President Xi Jinping's visit to US will be considered a success if he can ease concerns on key issues of cybersecurity and South China Sea
Big-power summits are generally planned well in advance and scripted to leave little room for surprise or miscalculation. Only days ahead of President Xi Jinping's state visit to Washington, however, there has been intense activity among key advisers on both sides, amid US concerns about cybersecurity and tension over Chinese construction in the South China Sea. Cybersecurity has become such a serious issue that at the last minute Xi dispatched a state councillor to Washington for talks, which were not reported until afterwards.
President Barack Obama has left no doubt it will be a priority topic - especially commercial spying. And right down to the wire, Beijing and Washington have been swapping revised offers for an investment pact for greater two-way market access.
On the South China Sea and cybersecurity at least, the summit is not expected to make any substantive progress. As well, the two sides have differed rather than cooperated on a number of issues.
It has to be remembered where each is coming from domestically. China remains shaken by the market chaos arising from currency devaluation, an equities rout and a botched government rescue attempt. Though Xi is likely to send the message that Beijing remains committed to economic reform, the priority is now stability, and this could be seen as a retreat from opening up markets and putting the economy on a sustainable growth path.
The US is embarking on a presidential election campaign amid fears China will emerge as a major issue and a negative for bilateral relations. Republican contenders, led by tycoon Donald Trump, have already singled out China for scapegoating for America's perceived decline. This is not positive for prospects of cooperation at a time when China and the US are already at odds on so many things. That explains why Beijing's pre-summit official briefings have focused on the line that Xi will try to ease US minds - no small matter at a time of global economic and political uncertainties.
So it is optimistic to expect anything substantial to emerge from the summit, leaving aside progress on climate change, military cooperation and nuclear non-proliferation. On the key regional security issue of the South China Sea, Beijing will not budge on what it sees as a core national interest. Therefore, if Xi can just do a good job of easing US concerns, his state visit may be counted a success in the current climate.