The top U.S. and Chinese diplomats have their share of work cut out for them as they strive to reconcile differences between the two nations following the weekend naval confrontation.

The recovery of this relationship is what President Barack Obama deems to be a vital factor to battle what is viewed as the world’s toughest crisis.

Even if diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi are successful in toning down the dispute — the two were scheduled to meet Wednesday in Washington — they may ease anger only temporarily over a larger military disagreement.

For many years Beijing has shown discontent to the U.S. surveillance operations around China's borders. Unless communications between the two militaries as they operate in the South China Sea are improved, future conflict remains a possibility.

Clinton and Yang can have a productive exchange to keep this bounded, but the real bureaucracies that need to be there aren't going to be at the meeting, said Jonathan Pollack, professor of Asian studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

He suggested that without stronger military-to-military links, the potential for something ugly happening should not be minimized.

According to China, U.S. Navy mapping ship confronted by Chinese vessels on Sunday was operating illegally in China's exclusive economic zone.

The U.S. side has twisted the facts. The U.S. survey ship was operating in China's exclusive economic zone on its continental shelf. Our vessels were just going about normal business ... This was itself harming China's sovereignty, said Zhang Deshun, a Chinese navy deputy chief of staff, the China News Service reported.

The United States says Chinese ships surrounded and harassed the Navy vessel in international waters in the South China Sea.

U.S. defense officials said Tuesday that the Navy ship was looking for threats such as submarines, presumably Chinese. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the ship's exact capabilities are sensitive. Other U.S. officials have said publicly that the United States will continue to patrol in the South China Sea despite Chinese objections.

On Tuesday, U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told lawmakers that the incident was the most serious episode between the two nations since 2001, when China forced the landing of a U.S. spy plane and seized the crew. Blair said the confrontation indicated that China is willing to flex its military might.

The Clinton-Yang meeting Wednesday was meant originally to build on good will from Clinton's visit to China last month. Yang also was scheduled to meet with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and with White House officials, the State Department said.

In her recent trip to China, she left Beijing officials impressed by listening to China's concerns and pledging to work together to lay a foundation for a positive relationship between the two powers and not to let human rights differences interfere with attempts to cooperate on broader issues

The weekend naval incident comes as the Obama administration tries to get Chinese help on a host of foreign policy matters, including efforts to confront Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.