52 world leaders, including Narendra Modi, will attend this week's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC.
Obama will meet separately only with the Chinese president.
Former senior RA&W official Jayadeva Ranade discusses the likely agenda at the superpowers' meeting.
The importance accorded to the US-China relationship by both countries will be visible at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on March 31-April 1, 2016, when US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet separately.
That will be the only bilateral meeting between Obama and any of the 52 world leaders attending the Summit.
Some US analysts interpret this as 'a sign of respect for Xi and an indication of how important President Obama considers the US relationship with China,' but the campaigning for the US Presidential elections that is underway will limit the benefits that either side can expect from the meeting.
For China, the key items on the agenda would be: The South China Sea, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and the ballistic missile defence talks between the US and South Korea. Pakistan's nuclear weapons development programme could also appear on the agenda. Xi will push for acceptance of the 'new type of big power relations.'
Obama is expected to mainly focus on cyber espionage and cyber theft, the South China Sea and disputed claims with the Philippines, tougher economic sanctions against North Korea, and human rights.
In the weeks prior to the March summit, both China and the US have signalled their areas of special interest. Beijing has indicated a willingness to use force to protect its interests and at the recent National People's Congress reasserted sovereignty over the South China Sea.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters on March 7, 2016, on the sidelines of a discussion at the 4th Plenum at the 12th NPC, that 'The South China Sea situation is pretty stable. We certainly don't want some countries coming here to show off their military prowess, as this would not help maintain stability in the area.'
Luo Baoming, the Communist Party secretary of Hainan province, highlighted China's historical claim to the South China Sea, saying Hainan's 100,000 fishermen have documented proof of their navigation routes in the South China Sea dating back 600 years!
Earlier, in February, the People's Daily quoted the People's Liberation Army's new South Theatre Commander General Wang Jiaocheng as saying his 'foremost mission is to safeguard rights and interests in the South China Sea' and that 'no country will be allowed to use any excuse or action to threaten China's sovereignty and safety.'
China meanwhile maintains its aggressive posture in the South China Sea with Chinese vessels regularly encroaching territorial waters of countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The US, which has been closely monitoring developments in the area, also timed exhibition of its interest in the South China Sea with the NPC session. It despatched a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier accompanied by two guided-missile destroyers, a guided-missile cruiser and a supply ship to operate in the eastern part of the South China Sea since March 1, 2016.
'Blue Ridge', the floating headquarters of the Japan-based US 7th Fleet, left on a port visit to the Philippines, reflecting Washington's concern about how China might react to a decision by the international tribunal favouring the Philippines' claims. There is uncertainty whether, in addition to formally rejecting such a decision, China will militarily challenge those claims.
The issue is complicated because the Philippines is a US ally. China has taken note of the US action. 'If you take a look at the matter closely,'NPC spokeswoman Fu Ying said, 'it's the US sending the most advanced aircraft and military vessels to the South China Sea.'
Taiwan is the other issue of concern to Beijing, especially following the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party's resounding election victory.
While Beijing has protested the proposed US arms sale to Taiwan, Xi put forward 'three new propositions' regarding Taiwan at the NPC:
- i. the 'common fate proposition' (that people living on either side of the Taiwan Straits are blood brothers sharing the same fate and family inseparable because blood is thicker than water;
- ii. 'the proposition of the 1992 consensus being a political basis' (that the 1992 consensus clearly defines the nature of cross-strait relations and on it hinges the peaceful development of cross-strait relations);
- iii. 'the proposition of containing Taiwan independence' (that the mainland will resolutely stop any form of behaviour having to do with Taiwan independence or separatism and safeguard the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity).
There was resonance of these at the NPC sessions. Hongkong's Ming Pao newspaper assessed it as a tough red-line drawn by Xi Jinping to restrain Taiwan's incoming President.
There is closer alignment of views on the issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated a slight shift in position at the recent NPC, saying so long as there are nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula there is no stability.
Wang also referred to China's relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, routinely described in earlier years 'as lips-to-teeth', as 'normal State-to-State relations.'
There are, however, limits as to the concessions China will make regarding a country with which it has long had close ties and for which Mao Zedong lost his son. A senior Chinese military interlocutor separately indicated that while a Korean Peninsula with nuclear weapons is not in China's interest, economic sanctions are also not helpful.
Pointing to the discussions on the ballistic missile defence between US and South Korea as a cause for concern, the official said it will affect China's deterrence and could prompt China to revise its nuclear 'no first use' policy.
The US and Western countries have recently upgraded human rights as an issue in discussions with China. On March 10, coinciding with the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet and the Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation, the US and Canada jointly supported a statement criticising human rights in China at an event attended by the Dalai Lama at the Geneva International Institute.
Of particular interest to India will be the meeting between Xi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Nuclear Summit. There is credible indication that Xi will discuss 'extending diplomatic or other substantive support' to Pakistan to counter US insistence that Pakistan go slow on development of its tactical nuclear weapons.
US pressure is reportedly anticipated against the backdrop of the worsening nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
While the US Presidential elections limit Obama's capacity to drive tough negotiations, Xi is unlikely to yield ground on issues like the South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula. He will neither relent on human rights issues, where he can claim to have made concessions by permitting a US Congressional visit to Tibet last year and prohibiting protests by pro-Shugden groups against the Dalai Lama during his visits abroad.
Economic issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the 'One Belt, One Road' will undoubtedly be discussed with agreement to keep the relationship in good repair.
Jayadeva Ranade -- a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India -- is President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.