Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will meet in Beijing at this week's Apec leaders' gathering, at a time when their careers are on very different trajectories and bilateral relations have turned sour.
Hamstrung by the Democratic party's poor showing in last week's mid-term elections, Mr Obama is limping into the final two years of his presidency while Mr Xi can look forward to another eight years in office, during which time China is set to overtake the US as the world's biggest economy.
Mr Obama and Mr Xi will emphasize that a stable bilateral relationship is essential to both countries and downplay the many instances of friction between the two as so much surface noise. But the strategic divide between the world's two largest economies – on everything from cyber security issues to trade policy – is enormous and both leaders are under pressure to be even tougher with each other.
"A heightened level of tension is the new normal [in Sino-US relations]," says Mike Green, former Asia director at the US National Security Council. "The challenge for the president is to continue framing the relationship in a win-win way because on broad economic issues, management of North Korea and regional integration, we're still generally on the same side."
Further disagreements have arisen over China's allegations of "foreign involvement" in the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Beijing also recently established a rival to the US and Japanese-led Asian Development Bank and, excluded from Washington's Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, is pushing for a more inclusive Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.
US officials deny suggestions that they have played any role in the Hong Kong unrest – or that they tried to sabotage China's new development bank – but trade tensions between the two countries were evident over the weekend.