Obama, Xi likely to focus on common ground in meeting on sidelines of Apec

US President Barack Obama (left) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping as he arrives for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders meeting at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing on Nov 11, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
US President Barack Obama (left) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping as he arrives for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders meeting at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing on Nov 11, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

WHILE sticky issues like maritime disputes, cyber-spying and the Hong Kong protests will be on the agenda when US President Barack Obama meets with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Tuesday in Beijing, analysts say that both will likely want to focus on common ground after a year of strained ties.

Still, Washington observers are keeping their expectations low, noting that Mr Obama will be travelling with a modest agenda, seeking a more "feel good" outcome as he turns to foreign policy for a boost after the disastrous mid-term election results.

"There's been a lot of intensive high-level negotiation or meetings heading into this summit... We should not be expecting a big departure from existing US-China policy. I think they want to demonstrate that we're making progress in the relationship with China that advances American economic interests," said Dr Ely Ratner of the Centre for a New American Security.

"I think the message is, the administration is invested in the relationship but not in deference to China and that they're clear-eyed about the competitive aspects of the relationship," he added.

At a briefing for journalists, National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs Evan Medeiros had similarly emphasised the cooperative aspects of the relationship.

"We see this trip as an important opportunity to define a forward-looking agenda for the US-China relationship over the next two years, and to ensure that the US-China relationship is defined for the most part by more and better and higher quality cooperation on regional and global challenges," he said.

That common ground would likely involve tackling climate change issues, working to battle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and exploring economic opportunities.

For instance, the bilateral investment treaty - a product of the 2013 Sunnylands summit between Mr Obama and Mr Xi - will likely figure on the agenda even if talks have not progressed over the past year.

The treaty, regarded as a critical piece of the US-China economic relationship, is an agreement that outlines binding rules covering the treatment of foreign investors and investments in both countries.

China-US ties had hit a low in the year since the two leaders met at the Sunnylands retreat in California as both sides clashed on issues ranging from Chinese provocations in the South China Sea to the US decision in May to charge five Chinese military officers for stealing American corporate secrets.

And while Mr Obama is expected to raise concerns on these matters with Mr Xi, he will largely steer clear of any firm public pronouncements on a topic like the maritime disputes until he heads to Myanmar for the second leg of his week-long visit to Asia.

Another aspect Washington analysts will be looking out for during Mr Obama's visit is whether the two countries will continue to stick to the "new type of major power relations" framework that Mr Xi had proposed at the Sunnylands summit last year.

Criticisms of the term cropped up very quickly after it was first proposed, with many noting that such a narrative seemed to negate the idea of there being another major power in Asia apart from China.

And while Chinese officials continue to talk about the concept enthusiastically, the idea seems to have gradually disappeared from the White House's Asia lexicon.

But perhaps of greatest significance on Mr Obama's latest Asian visit will be the measure of which his problems at home will affect his foreign policy focus.

"I think when South-east Asia looks at this trip and him coming, they're wondering, you know, who is Barack Obama now after the mid-term elections? And I think they'll be trying to discern whether he has the commitment and political capability, political capital to follow through on earlier commitments," said Mr Ernie Bower, senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.