“Xi who?” That seems to be the reaction of many Americans to the visit of China’s Vice President Xi Jinping. He has far less name recognition in the West than either President Hu Jinato or Premier Wen Jiaobao. The baffled multitude must learn his name, however, and start examining his policies, because this fall the 58-year-old Xi steps up to become Hu’s successor for likely the next half of a decade.
Mainstream experts predict that at around 2020 or soon after, the ‘Middle Kingdom’ will surpass the ‘world’s lone superpower.’ Thus, it will likely be Xi who will preside over his country’s vertiginous ascent toward that historical turning point. So what did his first trip to the U.S. signal about him?
Overall, his maiden appearance before Americans saw him eagerly projecting the image of a cool headed professional apparatchik who, like other Chinese leaders committed to economic modernization, appears in a western suit. To start, he cooed reassuringly about expanding imports to ameliorate the US’s growing trade deficit that hit US$295 billion in 2011. When he toured the farm state of Iowa, the Chinese side pledged to purchase over US$4 billion in soybeans this year -- an all time high.
On February 17, he dispelled concerns that China would experience slowed growth that will roil the world economy in late 2012. “China’s economy will maintain stable growth...there will be no so-called hard landing,” Xi said.
He also showed his understanding of the US domestic scene when he appeared in Los Angeles to address not only firms, but also state governors eager to boost exports, joint ventures and bilateral investment. After all, major states such as California are akin to countries whose leaders can and do court China with considerable leeway, apart from the federal government. Specifically, Li promised that, “We will encourage more consumption, imports, and outward investment.”
He has his work cut out, however, because irate Congressmen accuse China of unfairly subsidizing large state companies that export, undervaluing its yuan currency, stealing copyrighted products and hindering foreign investors. Xi reassured that, “We are strengthening intellectual property protection through a mix of administrative and judicial measures.”
Simultaneously, Xi signaled that he is no pushover. While in Washington before LA, he asserted that the US must fix its own economic problems – not blame China: “Speaking frankly, an important aspect of addressing the imbalance in Chinese-U.S. trade is the United States’ own economic policies and structural adjustment.” This usually means that Beijing wants the US to cut its deficit. Plus, he prodded the US to liberalize export controls.
Assuredly nervous that candidates running for the oval office this year might press these ‘hot button’ issues, Xi displayed his public relations skills. With US Vice President Joe Biden escorting him, the pair ventured to the International Studies Learning Center in Los Angeles. Its American students there learn Chinese, and Xi saw students leaping during a lion dance performed for him.
As for Biden, late last year, US President Barak Obama anointed him the administration’s point man to coordinate and front China policy so that it remains coherent -- and in the public eye. It was during that same season that Obama also committed the US to ‘return to Asia.’ It broadly means that as Washington withdraws its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, it will concentrate more on shoring up its presence in Asia overall. In fact, Obama announced that in the future, he would deploy US soldiers to north Australia. It triggered concern – but not alarms -- in Beijing, where nationalists insist that Washington’s grand plan is to encircle China so as to ‘block its rise.’ Biden sought to promote a framework of responsible conduct when he intoned on February 17 that even with trade tensions, “we absolutely agree wholeheartedly, that the future [will] be written in large part by how well the [US] and China meet their mutual responsibilities, for us to cooperate....” Ji himself broached that theme two days earlier: “China has become the United States’ fastest growing export market. A prosperous and stable China will not be a threat to any country,” he promised. But are storm clouds of conflict gathering? Mitt Romney, a Republican candidate, denigrated Xi’s visit as “empty pomp.”
What is the judgment of objective experts? Paul Evans is the director for the Institute for Pacific Affairs in Vancouver and a thirty year student of Sino-Western relations. He asserts that, “the visit is about managing a full spectrum of security, economic and global challenges with a full house of American domestic players. There is symbolism regarding the American embrace of the next generation of China’s leadership and creating positive initial images. Ji watching the LA Lakers is like Deng Xiaoping wearing a ten gallon cowboy hat while circling the Houston astrodome.” That was during his 1979 visit during the Jimmy Carter administration as part of the process that eventuated in normalized relations. Overall, Evans intones that, “no global bilateral relationship is now more important or complicated. Both sides sense that the relative power equation is shifting and see the [constructive] status quo persist but realize it is unsustainable [so are] deeply anxious. The Greek historian Thucydides (460 - 400 BC) claimed that the Peloponnesian war (431 - 404 BC) in ancient Greece arose because rising Athenian power scared rival city state Sparta. America’s fear of China is growing and both sides are seeking to avoid a fateful decline. Economic linkages and agile diplomacy are the two tools on which they agree.”
So Xi’s American debut was a moderate success, if only because both the host and guest promoted pleasant atmospherics and inked some substantial deals that will, temporarily, placate US hard liners on trade. His visit also avoided gaffes or any public fracas. But the historical stage is set for Xi to now help steer his country until it supercedes the US within the middle future. We would all do well to get acquainted with the name of man who will be soon be one of the globe’s most powerful persons -- Xi Jinping.
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