As U.S. and Chinese officials gather in Beijing to discuss contentious strategic and economic issues from cyber security to currency policy, the most pressing priority is for the two nations to fix their deepening mistrust, say analysts.
The annual two-day U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue—or S&ED—kicks off on Wednesday, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew representing the United States and State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang representing China.
"The stakes may prove very high in this largely hidden dimension of what transpires at this S&ED," said Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Read MoreChina fails to overturn US trade law
"Officials from both sides must use the S&ED not only to candidly discuss the trends and consequences in the overall U.S.-China relationship but also to evaluate the views, concerns, recommendations and intentions of their counterparts," he added.
China's growing military clout and assertiveness - particularly with regard to territorial claims in the East and South China Sea – where Japan and several other Southeast Asians have overlapping claims, has the U.S. on edge.
China lays claim to Japanese-administered islets in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. It also claims the South China Sea nearly in its entirety, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
"From an American perspective, it's getting harder and harder to separate China's relations with its neighbors. As China's relations with Japan and others have deteriorated that inevitably bleeds into the U.S.-China relationship," said Evan Feigenbaum, vice chairman of Paulson Institute – a think a U.S.-based think tank.