Xi Visits Washington: What the U.S. Can Expect from China’s Next Leader

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Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping waves to students during a visit to Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok on Dec. 24, 2011

In January, China’s Vice President Xi Jinping helmed a commemoration of the 40thanniversary of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to China. Nixon’s visit ended with the triumphant issuing on Feb. 28, 1972 of the Shanghai Communiqué, a delicate diplomatic accord that began the process of normalizing relations between two nations that “cannot live without each other today,” as Niu Jun, a Peking University professor who specializes in the U.S.-China relationship, puts it. (Chinese state media never quite explained why these 40th anniversary celebrations were marked a month early.) But Xi, who is expected to take over some leadership duties from current Chinese President Hu Jintao this fall, gave a rather tame, tedious speech as he honored the world’s most important bilateral relationship: “Ultimate caution should be given to major and sensitive issues that concern each country’s core interests to avoid any distraction and setbacks in China-U.S. relations.”

Will Xi show a little more ardor when he spends his first full day in Washington on Valentine’s Day, his virgin foray to the U.S. as China’s presumptive leader? (Xi’s Feb. 13-17 U.S. trip will also include stops in California and Iowa, the latter which he visited 27 years ago as part of an agricultural delegation.) On Monday night, after having arrived at Andrews Air Force Base earlier in the afternoon, Xi (pronounced “Shee”) met with, among others, Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State who was instrumental in facilitating Nixon’s groundbreaking China tour four decades ago. The meeting, along with the fact that high-level summits between American and Chinese leaders are now routine, points to the remarkable evolution of the two powers’ diplomatic relationship.

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Nevertheless, significant tensions related to trade, security and even ideology remain. Indeed, on the eve of Xi’s U.S. trip, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai pointed to what he called a “trust deficit” between the U.S. and China. “The level of mutual trust between China and the U.S. is lagging behind what is required for the further development of our bilateral relations,” Cui said in Beijing. “Vice President Xi’s visit will present a very important opportunity to enhance our mutual trust.” Considered more personable than Hu, Xi, 58, may very well begin forging the kind of personal relationships with American leaders that could ease the inevitable stresses between the two nations—even if he is not yet China’s leader.

This is a momentous year both for the U.S. and China, as the former holds a presidential race and the latter undergoes a once-a-decade leadership transition. U.S. President Barack Obama will have to balance a need to maintain good relations with the world’s second-largest economy (and largest holder of U.S. debt) with a campaign-fueled incentive to blame China for a wide trade deficit, lost American jobs and a sense among Americans that Beijing is artificially keeping the value of its currency low in order to make Chinese exports cheaper.

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But the bigger pressures may be on Xi, as he and other Chinese technocrats struggle to maintain the economic growth that has transformed the nation and kept the Chinese Communist Party in power. Even as the Americans pressure the Chinese leadership to relax its control over the yuan, Xi must contend with a populace that is increasingly prone to protest over economic issues, ranging from inflation and unemployment to factory conditions and land grabs by local officials.

In addition, Xi must placate an increasingly nationalistic public which wants Beijing to stand tough as the U.S. reorients itself toward the Asia-Pacific after a period of focusing its attentions on the Middle East. “We’ve made it clear that America is a Pacific power,” the President asserted in his 2012 State of the Union address, underscoring a strategic shift by the U.S. military toward that region. “America is back.” Such statements, along with U.S. moves to defend nations like Vietnam and the Philippines, which are wrangling with Beijing over territorial disputes in shared waters, have led to vocal U.S.-bashing on the Chinese Internet. Complicating matters further is China’s increasing willingness to publicly differ with American foreign policy in other parts of the world, from Syria to Iran. It’s unlikely that Xi will concede ground on any of these issues during his U.S. trip—especially with a tricky leadership transition and feisty Chinese public looming in the background.

(MORE: The U.S. and China Are Still Wary After All These Years)

And yet, who could have expected Sino-American relations to evolve as quickly as they did from the time Nixon visited what was then referred to by some American policy-makers as “Red China?” Four decades ago, the U.S. President’s trip was considered a venture almost as exotic as a mission to the Red Planet, Mars. “No one could have predicted such a big advancement in their relationship,” says Zhu Feng, a political scientist at Peking University. “The current puzzle is that the two countries must build a new approach to address the tremendous change in China.”

Those changes constitute what may well be the greatest economic story of our time: the world’s fastest growing consumer market and biggest exporter fashioned out of a broken nation that had just endured the chaos, violence and hunger of decades of misguided central planning. After all, in 1972, under Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule, the People’s Republic had sealed itself behind a bamboo curtain. Shanghai, where the Communiqué was signed, was just emerging from the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution and it was a preternaturally hushed place back then. Flocks of bicycles wheeled through the dark, while families queued quietly for treasures like eggs or toilet paper. Today, of course, Shanghai—like much of urban China—thrums with the metronomic drumming of the jackhammer. In a fitting symbol of China’s frenzied development, the building where the Shanghai Communiqué was signed was demolished. In its place, a squat structure now stands, housing, among other things, a swimming pool and a ten-pin bowling alley. There is no plaque to memorialize the landmark event of four decades ago. Why look back when the present is so engaging?

And for all the tensions between the U.S. and China, the two countries are inextricably linked. Made in China is what Americans buy. Chinese, meanwhile, are entranced by both the American market and the American Dream. “Unlike the cold war between the Soviet Union and the U.S., China and the U.S. are tied together in so many ways, from investment to cultural exchange,” says Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Whoever the leaders are in China and the U.S., this is what will keep the two nations’ relations manageable.”

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