US Courts China's Future Leader Xi Jinping
Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping has wrapped up a highly scripted five-day tour of the United States aimed at building relations and improving communication, as the Washington and Beijing governments approach leadership changes this year.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
China's Vice-President Xi Jinping ended a week-long tour of the United States on Friday last week (17 February).
The visit was significant in terms of relationship-building, but was also aimed at improving communication between the two sides as they approach potentially destabilising political transitions later in the year.
Overall, Xi's self-assured and confident manner was well received in the US, although it remains to be seen to what extent this affects the development of bilateral ties in future.
Xi Jinping Reaches Out to US
China's Vice-President Xi Jinping wrapped up a highly scripted visit to the United States on Friday last week (17 February; see United States - China: 14 February 2012: China's Future Leader Arrives in US). Speaking on the final day of his five-day tour of the country, Xi said: "I can now say my visit to the United States has been a full success". US vice-president Joe Biden also praised Xi for his efforts to reach out to the American public. China's future president kicked off his visit on 15 February with a keynote speech in Washington during which he expounded his views on the importance of the bilateral relationship. He talked about the need to achieve more balanced economic ties and to enhance co-operation levels. At the same time, he called on the US to respect China's "core interests", particularly regarding the sensitive issues of Taiwan and Tibet. On these topics, he asked the Washington government to adhere to the "one-China policy" and to actively oppose Taiwanese and Tibetan independence. While Xi welcomed the US strategic plan to enhance its diplomatic and military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, he tempered this by saying that he hopes the US "will truly respect the interests and concerns of countries in the region".
The following day saw Xi visit the Midwestern state of Iowa. The reason for this was that he had previously visited the state as a provincial official in 1985 in order to gain knowledge of American agricultural processes and how these might contribute to China's development. During his time there, he visited a soybean farm and signed agreements to purchase 317 million bushels of soybeans—in a deal worth USD4.3 billion. During the final leg of his tour in Los Angeles, Xi promised to "significantly" increase market access to US films. A US government statement said that the deal will "allow significantly more job-supporting US film exports to China and provide fairer compensation to US film producers for the movies being shown there".
Xi's relaxed, personable style perhaps helped ease US concerns over his views of US influence in Asia. Three years ago Xi gave a speech in Mexico in which he attacked what he called "a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country". This appeared to be a reference to US criticisms of his country's repressive political and social policies. During that speech, Xi also appeared to take a swipe at US foreign policy, adding that: "China does not export revolution, hunger, [or] poverty." China has frequently criticised US support for Taiwan and other violations of the Chinese mantra of "non-interference in other countries' affairs". The outburst—which would be unthinkable from current president Hu Jintao—prompted concerns that Xi views Sino-American relations in an adversarial context. Such an attitude could potentially inflame tensions given the US decision to escalate its military presence in east Asia (see World - United States: 6 January 2012: US President Announces End of Nation Building in Defence Review). During his visit, Xi was offered an unprecedented visit to the US Department of Defense's Pentagon headquarters, possibly in an attempt to mollify China over this strategic "pivot".
Outlook and Implications
More of the Same?
Xi's visit to the United States underscored an effort on both sides to start the relationship off with China's next leader on a positive footing. The tour was an opportunity for Xi to bolster his image in the eyes of both the Chinese and the American populace ahead of his promotion to head of the Chinese Communist Party this year, and to president in 2013. US media outlets published scores of articles spotlighting Xi's background and character (see China: 18 November 2011: A Peaceful Transition? The Emergence of China's Fifth Generation Leadership). Overall, his self-assured and confident manner was well received in the US. This was in stark contrast to public perceptions of China's current leader, President Hu Jintao, as being awkward and wooden in public. Xi's visit was also aimed at keeping relations on an even keel as the US enters a period of electoral politics, heightening concern in Beijing over possible "China bashing" over the coming months. Indeed, comments from Republican candidate Mitt Romney during Xi's time in the country are likely to presage further political turbulence in the bilateral relationship (see United States - China: 17 February 2012: US Republican Candidate Attacks Obama's China Policy). Romney called Xi's visit "empty pomp and ceremony" and said that he would designate China a currency manipulator should he win office in the November presidential election.
Looking ahead, it is not yet clear to what extent Xi's future leadership will translate into improved ties between the US and China. Unsurprisingly, Xi's visit yielded no new policy pronouncements. Xi is likely to remain cautious over the coming months, waiting to articulate any major policy changes only after the 18th National Party Congress. Although it remains too early to ascertain the exact shade of his political leanings, it appears unlikely that he will significantly deviate from the party political line laid down by former leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. In this way, his week-long visit was a highly scripted event. Xi will probably take a strong stance on issues deemed of core national interest, including sensitive issues of trade, foreign policy and defence. For Sino-US relations, this means that the fundamentals of policymaking on both sides will remain much the same, presaging the continuation of a complex, oft adversarial relationship characterised by a degree of mutual suspicion.
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