The diagnosis that the relationship is at a "tipping point" seems to be common wisdom among China analysts. China's power -- and, perhaps more importantly, its confidence in that power -- has grown to the point where the traditional U.S.-China policy is no longer adequate for managing the relationship.
The downward shift in U.S.-China relations may seem sudden, but in truth the cause is a gradual accumulation of problem areas.
Take, for instance, the two issues at the top of the Obama administration's agenda for Xi's visit: Cyber attacks and the South China Sea. Neither is a new problem for the relationship, but both issues have festered for so long that they are close to a crisis point.
Cybersecurity has been a point for emphasis throughout Obama's second term. In addition to a focus on shoring up public cyber defenses
, Obama has repeatedly emphasized the harm done to U.S. businesses by cyber attacks and cyber espionage -- an area where China has been a notable offender.
Back in 2012, General Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said such economic cyber espionage
was causing the "greatest transfer of wealth in history."
The debate about how to respond to China's cyber espionage has been going on since at least 2011
, as have efforts to engage China on creating "rules of the road" that define limits of acceptable cyber activities. But diplomatic efforts have been unsuccessful.
Obama planned to address these issues at his "shirtsleeves summit" with Xi in June 2013
, but leaks detailing America's own cyber espionage efforts effectively tied Obama's hands on cyber issues. Then, in 2014, China withdrew from fledgling U.S.-China cybersecurity
talks after the U.S. Department of Justice indicted five Chinese military officers on cyber espionage charges.
After three years, the two sides are still trying to get to the point where they agree to talk about cyber affairs -- and in the meantime, the issue has gained prominence.
Tensions over South China Sea
Likewise, the South China Sea issue is not new, but has slowly built into a flashpoint.
The United States first publicly expressed its interests in the region in 2010, in a speech given by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam. Tensions spiked again in 2012, when a standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal
ended with the effective transfer of control over the disputed feature from Manila to Beijing.
Yet the U.S. and China have nothing to show for years of talking about the issue. Instead, the problem has become more serious for both sides.
The U.S. watched with concern as China built artificial islands in the South China Sea that can serve as military bases and Beijing has seen the disputes "internationalized" despite its vocal opposition.
Chinese officials and military officers refuse to acknowledge that the U.S. has any right to weigh in on the South China Sea disputes, repeatedly asserting that China's "indisputable sovereignty" over the features is justification enough for its actions.
With diplomacy reaping no results, the Obama administration has come under increasing pressure
to take forceful action by conducting freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of those artificial islands not entitled to a territorial zone according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
With Xi's visit, both cyber espionage and the South China Sea are being described as critical issues for the relationship.
Small steps needed
But these issues only became flashpoints after years of failure to make meaningful progress -- and Xi's visit is likely to continue that pattern. Before Beijing and Washington can actually solve these problems, they need to figure out a way to talk productively about them. That's the real work to be tackled during Xi's visit.
So instead of a major breakthrough, look for some important baby steps.
For cyber issues, that means a return to regularly scheduled cyber dialogues. For the South China Sea, look for progress on a codifying procedures for unplanned encounters between U.S. and Chinese military planes, and moves toward extending the naval Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES)
between to their Coast Guards as well.
It's still too soon for a neat solution on these issues, but after five years of talks both sides need to make some progress.