Much of the spotlight on US Vice-President Joe Biden's visit to Beijing this week has been shone on issues surrounding the new air defence identification zone. But at the core of the 5-1/2 hours spent in conversation with President Xi Jinping was a more pressing issue - formulating a path for the two countries to manage their differences and work together.
"We are at a moment, a window, as they say, of opportunity. How long it will remain open remains to be seen - where we can potentially establish a set of rules of the road that provide for mutual benefit and growth of both our countries and the region, that set down sort of the tracks for progress in the 21st century," Biden told an audience of business leaders in Beijing yesterday before travelling to South Korea. "And so the only path to realise this vision for the future is through tangible, practical co-operation and managing our differences effectively.
"We have not tried this before. We have not tried this before," he repeated. "This is going to be difficult."
Biden said if Beijing and Washington could get it right the outcome would be "profoundly positive".
Both sides now agree that they want to forge a new model for relationships between major countries. But the concept, first raised by Xi in his summit with US President Barack Obama in Sunnylands, California, last year, is still vague. What exactly that entails will depend on how adaptable leaders are and how well they can work around their differences while building a trusting relationship, experts say. But the range of issues addressed during Biden's unusually long meetings with Xi, they said, threw some light on how leaders of the two powers envision their future together.
A White House official with Biden said the men spent a good amount of time in their meetings talking about the overall bilateral relationship and its complexities. He said the two talked about "the need to build trust".
It appears the air defence identification zone (ADIZ) issue did not dominate the meetings. The official said Biden did lay out the US position, that it does not recognise the zone, and expressed his concerns. The official said it was now "up to China". Instead, the nuclear crisis in North Korea was the focus of a small-scale restricted meeting between the two leaders and a few aides. The meeting, one of three sets of discussions, was planned for 45 minutes but lasted two hours.
China's economic reform was also touched upon.
How the countries handle these issues, not just the defence zone, would be a test for the "new model" relationship, said Zhu Feng , a professor of international relations at Peking University.
"The most important thing for this new model of relationship is trust, and figuring out each others' bottom line, and a better communication system," Zhu said. "The fact that they talked for more than five hours, which is unusual, indicates that they have quite a pragmatic approach in handling problems."
Biden on Wednesday talked of his personal relationship with Xi and said he was impressed by the Xi's candour and constructive approach in developing the new relationship. Many believe this will help ties.
But Orville Schell, a China watcher and the Arthur Ross director of the Centre on US-China Relations at Asia Society, is less hopeful of bilateral relations yielding much progress while China continues to adopt a muscular and aggressive approach.
"I don't think this relationship [Biden's personal relationship with Xi] is going to resolve problems created by China trying to flex muscles that make others nervous and upset," he said.
The new model could be the correct formula, "but it's only a hope," he said. A breakthrough as important as former US president Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 was needed to translate that hope into something concrete, Schell added. "I am afraid it's not going to happen soon."
China's establishment of the ADIZ late last month has been criticised by the US and Asian neighbours as "provocative" and "destabilising". The zone overlaps with territories contested with other neighbours, in particular the set of controversial islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
Tokyo has reacted fiercely by demanding Beijing rescind the new zone and asked its civilian airlines not to comply with the Chinese rule that requires all aircrafts to report flight plans in advance before entering the zone or risk facing the consequences.
Many in Japan hoping for a more forceful denouncement of China from Biden were let down, experts said. "I think Tokyo was disappointed … But I think Biden was realistic because we cannot expect that China will agree to withdraw the ADIZ. On the other hand, since the US allows US airlines to report to Beijing, the US has less leverage on China," said Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Many Chinese experts see this as a diplomatic setback for Japan. "The US is sending a message to Japan saying I don't want to be hamstrung by your demand to rescind China's ADIZ. It's telling Japan not to make a big fuss about it, and not to always hide behind the US," said Richard Hu Weixing, an international expert at the University of Hong Kong.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan