US President Barack Obama. Photo: Reuters
The so-called "shirt-sleeves" summit to begin between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at a glamorous estate in California on Friday will be the first of its kind in half a century, a chance for the two great powers to stave off what some fear to be inevitable tensions.
"It harkens back to Nixon and Kissinger and Mao Zedong and Zou Enlai sitting on overstuffed couches late into the night in Beijing discussing the state of the world," says the US State Department's former top Asia official, Kurt Campbell.
Those meetings in 1972 began the Chinese-American diplomatic relationship, a relationship that since then has been marked by mutual mistrust, not aided by the rigid formality of meetings between the two leaders.
China's President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan listen to a speech in Mexico, days ahead of US-China summit. Photo: Reuters
Mr Campbell, who was present during meetings over the past few years between President Obama and President Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, said they were so orchestrated that it was impossible for either leader to stray from carefully negotiated agendas.
The meetings were either rushed encounters held on the sidelines of other major international gatherings, or formal summits attended by phalanxes of aides and officials, whose presence prevented any close dialogue between the two men.
The lack of pomp and circumstance attending this week's meeting is seen by some as evidence of self-confidence by President Xi. Historically Chinese leaders have considered the grandiosity of state visits to America as an important signal of international respect to domestic audiences.
Even the location is significant. The two will come face to face on Friday afternoon and through the day on Saturday at Sunnylands, a sprawling modernist architectural masterpiece built by the Annenberg family 190 kilometres inland from Los Angeles. It was here that Nixon licked his wounds after resigning the presidency. Since then the Annenberg family turned the home and its gardens and private golf course over to a trust in the hope it would be used for retreats such as this, a sort of Camp David on the Pacific.
The Australian Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, said the informality was crucial.
"This will be a real working meeting, a lot is going to get done," he said, citing forensic talks over North Korea's increasing belligerence as perhaps the most important topic.
But officials from both sides have made it clear they do not want the meetings to devolve into a cataloguing of grievances, rather they want to begin the process of plotting a peaceful future accommodating America's established power and China's rising influence. In China this is discussed as "great power relations."
"When the Chinese talk about this new model of great power relations, the focus is to avoid this so-called historic inevitability of conflict between the two," said a senior White House official during a phone briefing this.
Dr Campbell said this week's meetings came at a crucial time - at the beginning of Xi's leadership and Obama's second term — when the men could forge a personal relationship that could inform action on the key issues between the world's two largest economies.
He said he expected President Obama to frankly and directly raise the issue of China's cyber attacks on the US military and technology sector, which he said had violated "the prime directive" of Chinese diplomacy, which was to avoid creating a coalition of opposition.
China wants a better relationship with America and it understands that a key driver of that relationship in the United States is the private sector, which has been subject to the same cyber attacks as the US military, said Dr Campbell.
He also expects the two will discuss increasing tensions between China and Japan over the islands known Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Recently a senior US State Department official made it clear that the US would stand by its Japanese ally in the face of Chinese aggression.
But equally, said Dr Campbell, the US was aware that the Japanese Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe had been "provocative" over "historical" issues. (In April Abe appeared to engage in revisionism of Japan's war history, telling parliament, "The definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community. Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from."
As China's military presence rapidly grows across the Asia Pacific region, where the US has been reasserting its presence since President Obama
announced the US "pivot" four years ago, there are increased chances for the two nations' militaries to come into contact. Dr Campbell said he expected the two leaders to discuss potential protocols to be pursued in the event of incidents or accidents.
The personality of the two leaders is also thought to be significant.
Where Hu Jintao was known to be formal to the point of robotic, much has been made of President Xi's more relaxed presence. And unlike Chinese leaders before him Xi has some personal knowledge of America. In 1985
he visited Iowa during an agricultural exchange, visiting the home of Sarah Lande, who told Fairfax he was an engaging guest. He told her he dreamt of visiting America since reading Mark Twain. Obama is known to prefer direct informal meetings to the pageantry that is often associated with his office.
The director of the China Studies Center at Johns Hopkins University, David Lampton, said Xi could be the first Chinese leader to have an understanding of the United States beyond New York and Washington. He said a strong personal relationship between leaders was crucial to over coming suspicion between nations.
Other analysts have not been quite so positive about the meetings. Under the headline Xi's Not Ready, Michael Auslin, a member of the conservative Washington think tank AEI argued that as long as China was engaged in the theft of American intellectual property and defense secrets, and as long as it was maintaining ties with Syria, Iran, Sudan and North Korea, President Obama should not be engaging in such close talks with President Xi.
"Getting the personal treatment from the president of the United States is some of the most valuable political capital any foreign leader can receive, regardless of the concrete outcomes of the meeting, wrote Auslin earlier this week.
"The Chinese leadership must be delighted -- why should they modify their behaviour when Washington's China policy is all carrot and no stick?"