Like an international poker series, the game of global diplomacy seems to consist of touring the world and sitting around tables trying to guess what the opponents are really thinking. The summit between Barack Obama and China's president Xi Jinping is the match-up we have all been waiting for. Las Vegas's stalwart versus Macau's rising star, if you will.
But ahead of this meeting of giants, the American president had already shown his hand. There will be few surprises on the wish list - action on cyber-terrorism, an end to currency manipulation, cooperation to bring the Syrian civil war to a peaceful resolution and help dragging North Korea back to the negotiating table. A free press and political transparency have somewhat spoiled Obama's game.
The Chinese leader, on the other hand, has already set his poker face in stone. With the outside world salivating in anticipation, Xi has already toured Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico, nonchalantly heading to California last as if it would be rude for him not to drop by while in the region.
So what does Xi actually want from a relationship with the world's preponderant nation? The Chinese president does not see his country as an international enforcer or global policeman. Nor does he want to be dragged into diplomatic disputes that don't concern him. China is remarkably inward-looking. Despite fear-mongers' trembling at the rise of the next superpower, Beijing is more concerned with becoming a regional force than a global one.
In fact, understanding China's foreign policy is relatively straight forward. Apart from making sure not to endorse any international action that would contradict its own claims of sovereignty over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, the government's primary concerns are economic. Sustained growth is what matters the most to most Chinese citizens and the thing Xi really wants from America is a strong, hungry market.
But then so does Obama, one would hope.
Herein lies the crucial imbalance. Trade links will benefit them both so America is the only player at the table with any significant further demands. The stakes at the diplomatic casino are already inherently skewed.
All of this assumes however, that these meetings have any great bearing on the course of international affairs. While us mere mortals will never know exactly which (potentially mistranslated) words are exchanged between world leaders, it seems unlikely that too much can be thrashed out between all the cups of tea and photo calls.
Such summits are mostly an exercise in PR. This presents another imbalance. Because like angsty teenagers or Millwall fans, the Chinese government is not particularly worried about what others think. Propaganda for its own citizens is what counts. The internal PR strategy will probably stay the same, regardless of words exchanged. In fact, the gushing editorials in the People's Daily have most likely been drafted already.
But as ever, the US is in a battle for hearts and minds. With the OECD forecasting that China's GDP will surpass America's as soon as 2016, Obama must reassure his electorate that its political grasp will not falter and court an international community facing an imminent choice between East and West.
At the same time, he must try to win over a Chinese nation rife with suspicion about America's intentions. Conspiracy theories are rampant, from the USA's lies about climate change to covert meddling in Sino-Japanese relations. Through the cloud of censorship, Obama will no doubt want to portray himself in a positive light to a nation of consumers with growing economic clout.
So while America's president must play to international and domestic ears, the Chinese leader cares little about the former and himself largely controls the latter. Obama may have more chips at the table but Xi is the one holding all the cards.Suggest a correction