Editor's Note: Victor Cha is senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. For more follow @CSIS_org on Twitter.
By Victor Cha - Special to CNN
The buzz in Washington this week felt like the equivalent of an official State Visit (the highest honor given by the White House to a visiting head of state) - people were asking who got invited to the State Department lunch hosted by Secretary Clinton and Vice-president Biden, and the CEO roundtable event hosted by the US-China Business Council in honor of Chinese vice-president and leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping. CNN footage at Andrews Air Force Base showed Xi deplaning and receiving a red carpet arrival. Obama sat with Xi in the Oval Office, and did a press spray (reserved usually only for visiting heads of state), referring to the fact that the Chinese vice-president may attend a Lakers game during his time in the U.S.
Even if Xi is the putative next leader of China, Americans usually do not get all in a tizzy about such not-yet-crowned visitors. This sort of “star quality” treatment only happens to…. well, U.S. vice presidents or presidents, when they travel abroad.
This unusual Yankee hospitality reflects how important the Obama administration sees cooperation from China’s next leader for America’s future. Whether it is China’s military (the U.S. wants greater transparency about the People's Liberation Army buildup), Syria (China vetoed a recent United Nations Security Council resolution), counterproliferation (better cooperation on Iran and North Korea), or the economy (Chinese compliance with World Trade Organization regulations and greater stakeholdership in the global economic recovery), the “to-do” list is long, so why not get a head start on this with Xi?
Xi presumably had his own notepad of questions for his host Joe Biden and the president, not least of which was getting the lowdown on America’s recent professed “strategic pivot” Asia (“is this directed against China?”), and its massive deficit spending (a good part of which is financed by borrowing from the Chinese).
No major agreement on any of these issues was reached. After all, Xi is not president yet; by the time he becomes one, Obama may not be his counterpart. But this “getting-to-know-you” visit was important in other respects.
What the U.S. really sought with this visit (and with Biden’s trip to China this past summer) was to build a basis for communication with the next leader of China. As of late, the United States and China have been talking at each other, not to each other - each with its own complaints about the other’s policies. What is needed is a genuine dialogue based on personal relationships rather than stilted talking points. This is the only way to make progress with China.
Second, the friendly optics of the visit were meant to dampen rising critical sentiments in both countries. In the U.S., China has become the whipping boy for many American economic problems, a dynamic that is sure to worsen during this year’s presidential campaign. In China, incessant American finger-pointing is seen by a young generation of Chinese bloggers as the complaints of a declining power, looking to block China’s rise rather than solve its own problems. This dynamic, sometimes window-dressed as nationalism, is unhealthy for both sides.
Can Xi be what the U.S. dreams of - a dynamic new leader who is willing to break China (pardon the pun) inside the Communist Party of China and make his country more of a responsible stakeholder in world affairs and the global economy? It’s hard to say at this point. On the one hand, Xi represents a new generation of cosmopolitan Chinese leadership who has had more experience with the U.S. (Xi’s now-famous 1985 trip to Iowa being one example). He is willing to take on hard issues and bring more dynamism to the job than his straight-laced predecessor. On the other, Xi personally experienced the Cultural Revolution, which makes him cautious about the fragility of political life in China. More importantly, the job of president in China does not reward “out-of-the-box” thinking. It rewards convention and conservative actions, at least in its initial year.
Thus, the next occupant of the Oval Office, be it Obama or his Republican opponent, may not know the real Xi Jinping, and China’s direction, for at least a few more years.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Victor Cha.