The United States and China will spend time over the next couple of days testing whether their annual "Strategic and Economic Dialogue" can produce tough compromises or just serve as a venue to talk about greater cooperation.
The Obama administration comes with a clear set of priorities to this year's meeting in the Chinese capital: closer coordination against climate change, an end to Chinese industrial cyber-espionage and stricter rules governing maritime claims in Asia's contested, resource-rich seas.
But it's unclear whether Washington will be able to forge an effective agreement with Beijing in any of these areas.
All told, the two sides will canvass 60 topics when they meet Tuesday night through Thursday. Economic friction centers on the valuation of China's currency and claims by American companies of unfair market restrictions in China. Strategic discussions include the threat posed by nuclear-armed North Korea.
U.S.-China gatherings in recent years have vacillated between icy and warm. The dialogue two years ago in Beijing weathered the escape from house arrest by Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and a U.S. decision to grant him asylum. Last year in California, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to establish "a new model of major power relations."
Yet on many issues, the U.S. and China are mired in disagreement, reflecting natural friction between an established superpower and an emerging one.
The United States, with the world's biggest economy and strongest military, will be led this week by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
China's economy is set to surpass the U.S. in the coming decades and its armed forces are rapidly gaining strength. It will be represented by foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang.