He received a 19-gun salute at the Pentagon, toured the Port of Los Angeles and took tea in Muscatine, Iowa. On Friday, Feb. 17, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping will wrap up his five-day trip to the U.S., his first visit since emerging as China’s heir apparent. If the trip was aimed at personalizing the man who is expected to begin assuming China’s top leadership position this fall, then Xi’s U.S. tour was a success. Unlike current Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose wooden demeanor seems the very expression of an apparatchik, Xi proved himself an affable presence, quick with a grin and even an occasional humorous aside.
The visit, however, was short on substance — not that anyone really expected major policy changes to emerge from Xi’s trip. After all, the 58-year-old son of a revolutionary hero isn’t yet China’s President or Communist Party General Secretary. (The latter is a more important role.) With a delicate political transition and an increasingly confident populace back home, Xi could hardly have been expected to cave on the U.S.-China trade deficit or roll over on China’s currency, which U.S. officials allege is artificially devalued to help Chinese exports. Those agreements that were announced were minor in the scheme of U.S.-China relations, like a pledge by Beijing to open the car-insurance market to foreigners.
Nevertheless, in a country where scaremongering about China is plentiful during a presidential-campaign season, Xi tried to reassure Americans who are uneasy about potential conflict in the Pacific region. “China welcomes a constructive role with the United States in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia Pacific,” Xi said during a Wednesday luncheon. At the same time, China’s official media highlighted Xi’s efforts to talk tough, including his call “on the United States to adjust its economic policies and structure and remove restrictions on exports to China to address the trade imbalance,” as the state-run China Daily put it. While official Chinese media noted that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hosted Xi during a State Department lunch, there was little mention of the American’s rather confrontational toast, in which he chided China for intellectual-property theft, foreign-investment obstacles and Beijing’s use of a U.N. veto to block multilateral action in Syria. Instead, the China Daily described the atmosphere at the State Department meal as “relaxing.” (The mood during the Muscatine trip was deemed “joyful,” as Xi revisited with Iowans who hosted him 27 years ago when he visited the state as part of a Chinese agricultural delegation.)
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Even as Xi was followed during his U.S. trip by protesters decrying Chinese policy in Tibetan areas — where nearly two dozen Tibetans have self-immolated in a desperate attempt to call attention to Beijing’s repressive rule — he maintained his cool. On Feb. 16, the China Daily noted that “Xi also stressed China hopes the U.S. will truly honor its commitment of recognizing Tibet as part of China and opposing ‘Tibet Independence,’ and will handle Tibet-related issues in a prudent and proper manner.”
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As might be expected, Xi’s trip was fodder for Republican presidential candidates, who tried to outdo one another in tough-on-China talk. On Feb. 16, Mitt Romney wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that called to task both Beijing and U.S. President Barack Obama. “The shining accomplishment of the meetings in Washington this week with Xi Jinping … was empty pomp and ceremony,” he wrote. “Unless China changes its ways, on day one of my presidency I will designate it a currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction.”
Romney’s China bashing brought to mind a past presidential candidate: Bill Clinton, who famously referred to the “butchers of Beijing” three years after the bloodshed in Tiananmen and vowed to defend Chinese human rights even if there were financial consequences. Of course, as President, Clinton went on to cement the U.S.-China trade relationship and supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. The world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies are far more linked today than when Clinton was President — and Xi and whoever triumphs in the race to the White House both know it.