When President Obama and Xi Jinping met on the margins of the fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, both leaders struck a positive tone in their opening remarks.

Obama reiterated that the US welcomes the rise of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China, and emphasised shared US and Chinese interests on North Korea, nuclear security and climate change. For his part, Xi Jinping recounted numerous areas of bilateral cooperation and stressed China’s willingness to explore strengthening military-to-military ties, people-to-people exchanges, and cooperation on counter-terrorism, law enforcement, cyber security, economy and trade, and the Korea nuclear issue. In passing, both presidents acknowledged the existence of disagreements, but neither dwelled on them. The signing of two joint statements further signaled their concerted efforts to advance cooperation: both leaders committed to sign the Paris Climate Change Agreement on 22 April and to take respective domestic measures that would enable joining the Agreement as early as possible this year, and agreed to work together to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and strive to create a robust global nuclear security architecture.

Beneath this veneer of common interests and cooperation, however, there was evident tension. The most contentious issue was the South China Sea. Irked by US naval operations in recent months inside 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied land features in the South China Sea, Xi Jinping warned that China would not accept violations of its sovereignty in the name of freedom of navigation, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. Xi also called on Obama to 'strictly' abide by the US pledge to remain neutral on sovereignty issues in the South China Sea and instead contribute in constructive ways to promoting peace and stability. Although Obama’s remarks were not reported, he likely underscored the principles of non-militarisation and resolving disputes in accordance with international law. He may have also cautioned China’s leader to not undertake new dredging projects. Less than two weeks ago, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson hinted that Chinese activity around Scarborough Shoal could be a sign that China is preparing to conduct more land reclamation.

Despite shared opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and agreement to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang in UNSCR 2270, Xi Jinping voiced strong opposition to the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, in South Korea. Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told reporters that deployment of THAAD would 'undermine China’s security interests' and affect the Asia-Pacific region’s 'strategic balance.'

President Obama likely asserted the right of the US and South Korea to take steps to assure their security in the face of advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. He may also have reiterated an offer to provide Beijing with a briefing on THAAD’s technical capabilities to assuage Beijing’s concerns that it could provide radar coverage over Chinese territory and degrade China’s nuclear deterrent. In recent months, China has snubbed the offer, preferring to put pressure on Seoul to refuse to allow deployment of THAAD on its soil.

President Obama also raised US concerns about human rights. No details surfaced following the meeting, but it is likely that the US president voiced concerns about new efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to restrict freedoms of speech, association, and religion, impose constraints on civil society, and increase imprisonment and torture of rights advocates. Xi Jinping likely told Obama to focus his attention on America’s problems and refrain from interfering in China’s domestic affairs.

Despite clear signals from the US that President Obama will not repeat his earlier endorsement of Xi’s goal of building a new model of major country relations, the Chinese president insisted that realising that goal is a 'priority for China’s foreign policy'. He even went so far as to explicitly reiterate the call for respecting each other’s 'core interests and major concerns', a formulation that is widely viewed by Americans as unworkable.

Just as Xi has stubbornly refused to give up his proposal for a 'new model' of bilateral relations, he is unlikely to alter course on other contentious issues. US-China friction in the coming years is likely to be most serious in the South China Sea. The final nine months of Obama’s tenure will likely be rocky as China seeks to make more gains in the South China Sea and the US conducts more frequent and more complex Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). Although Washington hopes that the pending UNCLOS Tribunal ruling in Manila’s case against China will moderate Beijing’s behavior, it may be met with Chinese defiance, especially if there is no US-led effort to compel compliance. President Obama’s successor will inherit this challenge.

The South China Sea is now a test both of how China will behave as it emerges as a great power and US willingness to proactively enforce a rule-based order.

Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov