Instead of meeting on the aprons of the September G-20 summit in St. Petersburg as had been planned, President Obama and President Xi Jinping decided to meet informally last weekend in California at the posh Sunnylands estate of the late Walter Annenberg.

The change in timing signalled increasing concern about the state of the world’s most important, and most sensitive, bilateral relationship — one that has seen more than its share of ups and downs in recent years and is increasingly strained.

The meeting juxtaposed a surging China and a new leader (one with a long, ten-year runway to his tenure) with a sputtering America and a U.S. president with only a year left of effective leadership before Washington’s attentions shift to the presidential campaign of 2016.

But there was a much deeper geopolitical narrative at play in the blistering 37 degree heat of the California desert. China craves respect for its rising great-power ambitions. It wants to be seen as an equal to the United States — even though it has been reluctant to do much more than narrowly pursue its own interests.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying to reassert its superpower status with its major rival at a time of increasing uncertainty about America’s ability and will to lead effectively on global issues. Washington struggles with political gridlock and sequestration cuts have taken a chunk out of the U.S. defence budget too huge even for Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s bravado to hide.

China is using its massive wealth to press its economic objectives aggressively around the world. It is exploiting the West’s economic downturn with its unique brand of supercharged state-capitalism on a global scale — buying companies, securing resource supplies, building infrastructure and offering loans where they generate the best dividend on a scale and scope unprecedented in modern history. Normal market forces are of little consequence.

America and its western allies are tacking frantically to extract economic benefits from the transformation of China while restricting or containing the more strident manifestations of China’s new prowess.

For President Obama, the summit with China’s new president undoubtedly was a welcome — if brief — respite from the nagging controversies swirling around Washington — the most recent being the stunning revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency has for years secretly tapped the telephone records and social networking habits of millions of Americans (and likely Canadians too).

For President Xi, the meeting was the high point of a round of global visits underlining the vigorous, informal style of China’s new president — so unlike that of his more stolid predecessor, Hu Jintao, who never went off-script even in private meetings. Xi’s international excursions are intended more broadly as a means to assert China’s great-power aspirations and thereby revive popular support at home for the monolithic party he leads.

Both leaders are preoccupied with distinctly different domestic challenges that limit the degree to which they will be able to concentrate on the bilateral relationship.

President Xi is “riding the tiger” of strong economic growth, trying to grapple with chronic corruption, massive environmental pollution and widening income gaps, while adjusting growth more to domestic consumption than exports.

Obama’s challenge at home is fiscal and economic — sluggish growth and stubbornly high unemployment — but the solutions to these problems need to be political and negotiating with Congress has not been his strong suit. In fact, the ineffective manner in which the U.S. and most western governments are reviving economic growth is not likely to inspire those countries around the world who see China as a model. Multiparty democracy has lost much of its global allure in recent years.

Nonetheless, the two countries have good reasons to seek to resolve or contain bilateral tensions and instil a greater degree of stability into world affairs. We may not yet be living in a G-2 world, but it would be better all around if we did. The U.S. and the Soviet Union successfully managed their strategic rivalry during the Reagan/Bush/Gorbachev era and the rest of the world benefited from the political stability that ensued.

China and the U.S. must now learn to do the same. Regular summits are critical to the geostrategic equation and to managing problems and flashpoints that could lead to direct military confrontation. China’s cooperation from is essential, for example, in containing the reckless and highly dangerous antics of North Korea.

A direct but private airing of concerns about cyber-attacks and market competition more generally also could be constructive if it lowers the temperature on both. Defence Secretary Hagel drew China’s ire at a recent meeting in Singapore when he singled out publically the growing Chinese cyber-threat. Attempts to “soften up” the Chinese before a summit are classic American tactics — they’re not likely to be appreciated in Beijing. The Chinese were left to counter by voicing similar public concerns about the U.S. ‘pivot’ to Asia, which is perceived in Beijing as intended to thwart China’s new global ambitions — “containment” in everything but name.

China’s readiness to study the possibility of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership may be mere optics — but it’s better (and more astute) than Beijing’s outright opposition under the previous regime. In any event, private, personal diplomacy is likely to be more productive than public slanging matches intended for domestic political consumption.

The stakes are huge. As Ian Bremner and Jon Huntsman observed recently in the New York Times: “America and China are the world’s two biggest economies, two largest trading nations and two worst polluters. America is the world’s largest debtor. China is its biggest foreign creditor. There is no way to rebalance the global economy, slow climate change, manage the trouble kicked up by rogue states and keep the peace in Asia unless Washington and Beijing work together.”

In other words, the American eagle has to get down from its perch and the Chinese dragon has to breathe a little less fire.

A first meeting between heads of state can’t be expected to resolve fundamental problems or provide a dramatic breakthrough on global challenges. The differences between the U.S. and China are deep-rooted and each has good reason to be wary of the other. However, such meetings do allow leaders to get the measure of each other.

And if the lengthy, informal conversations in sunny California and the positive-sounding messages spun to the world’s assembled media help to avoid shocks down the road and lay the groundwork for cooperation, the summit will have served its purpose.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.