This week's state visit by President Hu Jintao is a farewell lap of sorts for the Chinese leader, and a chance for the White House to stabilize relations on key fronts including trade, currency and security. The Obama administration's intense preparation for the visit reflects the high-stakes relationship between the two countries. It will be the eighth meeting between Hu and President Obama.
Even so, the administration was downplaying expectations for measurable accomplishments during the three-day visit, calling discussions with China an ongoing project with a long horizon.
The relationship "really doesn't lend itself to every time you meet having some sort of announcement of so-called deliverables," said National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. "What it does lend itself to, though, is identifying a set of issues that are important to both countries and continuing to work on them and to play the long haul on each of these things, and to try to get real results over time."
Items on the agenda include security concerns such as North Korea, Iran's nuclear program and improving communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.
Central to the relationship are economic issues. Obama speaks frequently of the need to address the U.S. trade deficit with China, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been pressing Chinese leaders on monetary policy.
Human rights and legal reform also are on the list for discussion, though Doug Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said generally when U.S. officials raise human rights issues in China, their counterparts fire back about the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Instead, the overarching goal for this week's state visit is "to have a way for the U.S. and China to narrow the bandwidth of disagreement" on several fronts, Paal said, calling this a "critical period" in the two countries' relationship.
The past year was not a great one for U.S. and China comity. Disputes flared over territorial conflicts with Japan, U.S. debt, China's muted response to North Korea's attack on a South Korean warship and more.
Michael Green, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the state visit is more of a reboot than a working summit.
"This will likely not be a sort of historic summit or a transformational summit in U.S.-China relations," Green said. "We go into this summit now, I think, with both sides eager to add a little more stability to the relationship."
Underscoring the importance of the relationship, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Geithner delivered major speeches last week on China, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited China ahead of Hu's visit.
Hu's 2006 visit to the White House featured a South Lawn greeting, lunch and a meeting with former President George W. Bush, who rolled out the state visit regalia only for leaders of foreign democracies.
Obama by contrast is giving Hu the full state visit treatment, with elaborate arrival ceremonies, a formal dinner and private meetings.
Still, Obama can't afford to appear too conciliatory with the Chinese because it risks invoking the ire of many Republicans who believe the United States should take a stronger line on Chinese currency manipulation and other issues.
Hu steps down as president next year.