President Xi Jinping of China, left, and President Obama at the White House in September. Photo: The New York Times
When dozens of world leaders gather for a summit meeting in Washington on Thursday, President Obama will meet privately with only one of them: President Xi Jinping of China.
The one-on-one session signals the importance of the relationship, as a rising China seems determined to be the dominant player in Asia, and the United States vows to retain its power in the Pacific. But relations between the two countries are at their lowest point in 15 years. China’s military expansion in the South China Sea may be the most prominent point of friction, but it does not help that China is distracted by a slowing economy and that trade with China has become a cudgel in the American presidential campaign.
Expectations that anything of substance will be accomplished in the 90-minute meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi are minimal. So it may be surprising that some analysts here and in the United States say it would be relatively easy for the two leaders to ease tensions.
Mr. Xi could pledge not to go any further in militarizing disputed islands, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. In return, he said, the Americans could agree to stop sending warships and aircraft on “freedom of navigation” patrols into territory claimed by China.
The United States Navy has conducted two such patrols in the past several months, and there is a push in Congress for more.
An American analyst, Douglas H. Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said a show of restraint by both sides would be helpful.
“Offers of reassurance that restraint on new actions by China will lead to restraint on new significant or permanent military deployments by the U.S.” would be a start, he said. Beijing, for example, could agree not to use landfill to build up the Scarborough Shoal, part of the contested Spratly Islands, over which the Philippines lost control to China.
In China, even though Mr. Xi has orchestrated the South China Sea gambit, some foreign policy experts disagree with his stance. Those who are unhappy with his actions argue that the expansion alienates China’s Asian neighbors, pushing them closer to the United States — the opposite of what Mr. Xi is trying to achieve through trade and diplomacy.
Some Chinese scholars privately assert that in a gesture toward recognizing the authority of international maritime law, China could more closely set out its claim to the region by defining the so-called nine-dash line.
The nine-dash line is a U-shape line that China has drawn on maps since the late 1940s to mark its claims over most of the South China Sea. The line overlaps territory claimed by countries including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. But China has never given the precise coordinates of the line, and the ambiguity gives Beijing room to maneuver.
Such a move would probably appeal to the United States, Mr. Paal said. Doing so, and acknowledging the primacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, would effectively limit China’s claims of sovereignty to waters within 12 nautical miles from any land within the lines, freeing up the sea within, American and Chinese experts said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry quietly proposed doing just that in 2011, a year before Mr. Xi came to power, and then dropped the idea, said Mr. Paal, who was the director of the American Institute in Taiwan in the administration of George W. Bush.
It is unlikely to happen now.
According to Professor Shi, “The South China Sea is strategic hardball, and it goes to key national interests.”
Last week, at a briefing on Mr. Xi’s trip, Li Baodong, the vice foreign minister, made no attempt to sugarcoat the issue. When it comes to the South China Sea, he said sternly, China “has its own point of view and position.”
Under Mr. Xi, China has built artificial islands in disputed parts of the Spratly archipelago, equipping them with runways and ports capable of projecting substantial military power. In the Paracel Islands, which China has controlled since the early 1970s after pushing out Vietnam, the Chinese military has installed surface-to-air missile batteries and powerful radar facilities.
Those projects strengthen China’s hand in the strategic waterway, analysts said, in ways that it has never done before.
Mr. Xi wants “to force Asian maritime neighbors and the United States to accept the new status quo,” Professor Shi said.
Chinese children are taught that much of the South China Sea has belonged to China since ancient times, making any move seen as reducing Beijing’s claim seem a capitulation, scholars say.
The same day he meets with Mr. Xi, Mr. Obama will meet with the leaders of America’s two chief Asian allies, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
At the heart of the conversation with the two allies will be the conundrum of North Korea and its expanding nuclear weapons program. North Korea’s weapons tests, rocket launches and belligerent threats have persuaded Ms. Park that to defend itself, South Korea needs an American long-range missile-defense system known as Thaad, for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
The United States has long wanted to deploy the system there, but South Korea had resisted, unwilling to alienate China, its leading trading partner. China strongly objects to the deployment, which it says would allow United States military radar to penetrate deeper into China, compromising its security.
Meanwhile, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald J. Trump, said he would be willing to withdraw American troops from Japan and South Korea, and that he would be open to both countries developing their own nuclear weapons instead of depending on the United States for protection.
The South Korean and Japanese news media have been vocal in condemning the notion, though Chinses news outlets have been quiet, largely because Beijing does not like to address developments in democratic elections.
But in some quarters in China, there is probably quiet satisfaction about the idea that those American allies would no longer have the support they have long enjoyed, said Evans J. R. Revere, a former senior State Department specialist on East Asia.
“I strongly suspect China’s People’s Liberation Army is pleased to know that Trump would be prepared to dismantle the forward-deployed military presence that has kept the region at peace for over a generation,” he said.