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(photo credit: Jason Lee / Reuters)
Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping visited the US this week with a message of closer economic ties and the mutual benefits both superpowers would gain from better diplomatic relations.
Xi is the heir apparent of current President Hu Jintao, set to replace him as part of the generational transfer of power scheduled to occur this year. As a result, this trip has been an important opportunity for Americans to take the measure of China’s future leader.
This diplomatic jaunt retraces a similar visit that President Hu himself took in 2002, before he was anointed as the new Chinese leader. Xi’s governing approach, however, may differ in important ways from his predecessor.
With his daughter currently finishing up her sophomore year at Harvard, Xi has a personal perspective on the current state of American society that early Chinese leaders have lacked. Equally important, as a result of Xi’s long internal banishment to an impoverished rural community during the Cultural Revolution, he also has direct knowledge of the challenges facing China’s poorest.
Given that Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun was a hero from the Communist Revolution who went on to serve in high party positions, it would be easy to brand Xi Jinping as a “princeling”, the less-than-polite label for the sons and daughters of party elites who have ascended to power. However, Xi’s reputation is as a hard-working , unflashy individual, driven by sense of a personal mission and free from the corruption that is so endemic among too many current Chinese leaders.
China faces many difficult challenges, in addition to rural poverty and corruption. Their long-term goal is to eventually evolve their economy into one that can support a large and thriving middle class, but this target is still a long way off.
Unfortunately, China’s growth rate will take a significant hit this year, based on interim trade statistics also released this week. Hopes that the Chinese economy might benefit from a “soft landing” after years of stratospheric growth were undermined by significant drops in both imports and exports.
The Obama Administration will not have been happy to see a further increase in the trade surplus with China in an election year!
Xi’s visit to the US comes at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment may be growing, alongside frustration that a broad-based domestic recovery still hasn’t begun in earnest. China’s position as the second-largest economy in the world, as well as the world’s largest exporter, means that it inevitably has a significant impact on the American economy. The claim that Chinese currency manipulation is harming American workers and consumers will most likely be rolled out at regular intervals during the 2012 campaign to provide disgruntled Americans with a foreign target for their unhappiness and unease.
US voters in November will need to feel comfortable that the candidate they vote for has an effective strategy for rebalancing the global economy and ensuring that American companies and workers are able to compete effectively.
Xi will have used his trip this week to examine Obama and his team as intensely as they examined him. China’s assertive style of diplomacy has resulted in numerous important victories during Obama’s first term, such as the personal humiliation he suffered at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. An ineffective second term as a lame duck President my suit Beijing’s agenda in the near term. Beijing’s brutally effective veto of the UN Security Council’s condemnation of Syria demonstrates that Chinese leaders are not afraid to disregard American policy goals if it suits them.
Is Xi a friend or foe?
Personalizing the complex dynamic between two countries and reducing it an overly-simplistic “can we do business with this man?” will do little to help stabilize relations between these two superpowers.
The US-China relationship is perhaps the single most important in 21st century diplomacy. Whether Washington can effectively position the country and its policies to maximum effect in the coming months and years remains to be seen. Regardless, Beijing’s steady rise in international standing and influence will continue.
It has been 40 years since Beijing and Washington reopened diplomatic relationships in 1972. Both countries have benefit substantially from the renewed contact. Bilateral trade between the US and China last year amounted to over $400 billion, having grown 180 times over four decades. The economies of each country are becoming more and more interwoven. Despite the areas of potential conflict, it is difficult to imagine a world in which the US and China cut themselves off from one another and retreat behind real or imagined barriers.
Globalization will continue. The relentless compounding of annual growth rates will continue. Washington cannot simply decide to bury its head in the sand and hope that potential points of conflict with Beijing will somehow solve themselves.
If American leaders want to ensure that their country and its economy thrive in the years to come, then they will need to deal effectively with their Chinese counterparts. In fact, they will need to deal much more effectively with them than they have recently.
Xi’s visit to the US was an important opportunity for each side to establish clarity on their policy priorities. Let us hope that Washington can now raise its game when dealing Beijing.
The consequences of continued diplomatic fumbling and stumbling will be difficult to undo.The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.