President Barack Obama will offer his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping a full state welcome at the White House later this month, belying tensions fueled by Beijing’s increased military assertiveness.
The commanders-in-chief from the world’s two largest economies will meet amid global financial unease and with mounting US disquiet about Beijing’s behavior in cyberspace and on the high seas.
Obama has been under pressure to downgrade the visit, expected on September 24-25, with Republican presidential candidates saying Xi does not deserve the prestige of a state dinner.
“I would not be throwing him a dinner. I would get him a McDonald’s hamburger,” said Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
More than half of all Americans have an unfavorable view of China, according to a recent Pew Research poll, including 63 percent of Republicans.
The White House has rebuffed Republicans’ calls, stressing the value of engagement, but it has also signaled a more confrontational stance on cyber security, maritime disputes and the economy.
Administration officials have pointedly let it be known that Chinese firms and individuals could face sanctions for targeting US firms and stealing millions of highly sensitive government personnel files.
US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has also warned publicly that China would be held responsible for the political and economic impact of its currency policies after last month’s yuan devaluation.
The move shook global financial markets that were already jittery over a deceleration in China’s economy, which has grown at breakneck speed for more than two decades.
But the biggest point of contention may be in the military sphere, were China has proven increasingly forthright.
China’s growing might was on full show during a recent parade to mark the 70th anniversary of World War II.
Although Xi used the event to announce the People’s Liberation Army would shed 300,000 soldiers, the unveiling of anti-ship ballistic missiles capable of destroying US carriers caught the most attention in Washington.
Obama is certain to confront Xi — who is also chairman of China’s Central Military Commission — over a series of maritime moves the White House deems to be provocative.
Washington has said that it is considering sailing destroyers or other naval ships within 12 nautical miles of islands man-made by China, as well as flying P-3 and P-8 surveillance planes overhead.
And later this year Obama is expected to visit East and South East Asia, and may move to announce further joint military exercises with China’s neighbors and increased arms and defensive sales to nations like the Philippines and Vietnam.
China has long claimed it owns around 90 percent of the South China Sea, but has in the last decade moved to realize that claim.
Researchers at the National Defense University have documented 1,200 actions to “defend or advance” territorial claims in the area between 1995 and 2013.
Around half the actions were carried out by China.
In the last few years that effort has sped up further, with Beijing building on disputed atolls and deploying fishing vessels and military equipment into disputed zones.
During Obama’s recent visit to Alaska, five Chinese naval ships were spotted in the Bering Sea.
Military analysts say the moves represent a shift in Chinese strategic posture, from coastal defense to the creation of a vast open sea buffer zone.
The move would allow Beijing to project power across the region and create an operating sanctuary for submarines and other maritime operations, as well as boosting defenses.
China’s neighbors and Washington fear it also threatens vital trade routes, undermines the rule of law, creates precedent for solving territorial disputes by force and represents the theft of vast natural resources.
As the dispute has grown, so have fears of a military conflagration.
In August last year a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a US Navy patrol aircraft flying in international airspace, brandishing its weapons load in a maneuver Washington described as “a deeply concerning provocation.”
While raising the costs of Chinese misadventure, Obama will be careful not to poison a relationship likely to define the next century.
Adam Segal, a cyber security expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, said sanctions, for example, are extremely unlikely before Xi’s visit.
“I think they have been floating the idea beforehand in part to try to gain some leverage and see if they can get some movement from the Chinese on the issue,” he said.
This will likely be the last state visit by a Chinese leader during Obama’s presidency.
Last time Xi and Obama met in Beijing the pair were able to demonstrate cooperation by focusing on the environment, reaching a deal to limit carbon emissions that will likely form the backbone of a global accord.
The pair are likely to reiterate that commitment and, in a similar demonstration of cooperation, announce steps toward a bilateral investment treaty and increasing US access to the Chinese economy and vice versa.