When a visit to the United States by Chinese President Xi Jinping is marked with low expectations, despite the pomp laid out, there is cause to be nervous. Will the diplomatic feng shui ever turn auspicious? What one now sees is mutual suspicion, turned up by US presidential hopefuls who believe China bashing will win votes and by the "refusal of Mr Xi's inner circle to develop ties with Western officials", according to The New York Times. In recent months, Beijing's arrests of over 100 human-rights lawyers and activists evoked criticism in America. Meanwhile, the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour invited non-governmental organisations to bid for a US$10 million (S$14 million) contract to foster democracy and human rights in China. These and other developments made it a "terrible summer for US-China relations", noted the Diplomat magazine.
Worse was to come. Just ahead of the leaders' meeting, information was released that 5.6 million fingerprint images from the files of US federal employees were lost to suspected Chinese espionage operatives. And on the very day Mr Xi set foot in Seattle to meet technology and business chiefs came news that a Chinese military jet had executed an "unsafe" manoeuvre near a US reconnaissance plane in international airspace above the Yellow Sea.
Against this backdrop, just managing each other's differences and assertive actions is seen as accomplishment enough. That does not augur well for them and the world. For lasting peace, rivalry must be superseded by cooperation. Theirs is a relationship that turned sour from 1949, when the US maintained ties with the fallen Nationalists after the founding of the People's Republic of China. It was only during the astute Deng Xiaoping era that diplomatic relations were established. He was struck by just how big the gulf was between the two nations when he visited the US in 1979 and sported a cowboy hat. Over three decades later, Mr Xi carries himself regally and goes confidently to every corner of the globe to promote China's interests. Yet, when it comes to the US, the world's sole superpower, he seems to lack the urgency to make diplomatic history.
That was obviously not on Mr Obama's mind too as he referred to the possibility of sanctions over US grievances even as he hailed what progress was achieved. Climate change is the only notable area where the US and China are working in concert and showing results. Surely they can raise the bar higher. As no other pair of great powers has what it takes to jointly "shape the course of the world" in these uncertain times, to use Mr Obama's words, the relationship ought to be based on such a compelling narrative.
This is the world's most crucial relationship. Hence, it is vital that ties are not defined by the constant friction of strategic competition.