BEIJING — As Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, joined by a large group of U.S. officials, meet with senior Chinese leaders here this week, they will face an American-Chinese relationship riven by a strategic rivalry not seen before, a situation that neither side appears in the mood to improve.
Complicating matters is the one-man leadership style of President Xi Jinping, who appears to make the big decisions on national security — meant to challenge U.S. primacy in the Asia-Pacific region and establish a China-centric alternative — without much consultation with others, Chinese and U.S. experts say.
China’s push against two of America’s major allies, Japan and South Korea; its thrust into the South China Sea, which threatens freedom of navigation; and the sudden imposition of an air defense zone near Japan all reflect Xi’s thinking about China’s rightful place in Asia, analysts say.
Both China and the United States have set low expectations for progress on the issues scheduled to be discussed at the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, intended as a venue for the two sides to hash out difficult topics.
The best prospect seems to be the effort toward a bilateral investment treaty that China agreed to start negotiations on last year.
Toward that end, China’s vice minister of finance, Zhu Guangyao, said Monday that talks would begin soon on lifting restrictions on foreign investments in both countries, such as cutting back on the national security reviews Washington conducts before approving big Chinese investments in the United States.
In one critical area — cyberespionage — there is unlikely to be any real discussion. After the Justice Department won the indictments of five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on charges of cybertheft in May, China suspended a working group that had held only two sessions.
The atmosphere between Beijing and Washington has deteriorated to such an extent since Xi and President Barack Obama met at the Sunnylands estate in California a year ago that even pressuring a nuclear North Korea, the one area they agreed to pursue at that time, has almost vanished from the agenda, U.S. officials said.
Xi is making decisions based on his interpretation of “China’s national greatness and military effectiveness,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing who has advised the government on occasion.
Xi’s sense that Obama is a lame-duck president propels his inclination to “push and push again” in the South China and East China Seas, Shi said.