U.S. Vice President Joe Biden concluded a brief three-country tour of Asia that took him to China, Mongolia and Japan. While there is always some trepidation when Mr. Biden travels — while he is a genuine foreign policy expert, he has a tendency to make off-the-cuff remarks that get him in trouble — the trip was a success. He achieved his key objectives: Working on building a relationship with his counterpart, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the man tapped to succeed President Hu Jintao next year, and reassuring China and other Asian nations, especially Japan, of the ongoing U.S. commitment to the region.
The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important in the world. For better or for worse, the two countries need to cooperate to tackle key international problems; bad relations between them will undermine regional peace and security. Engagement is required across all levels of government and society, but leadership and direction from the very top is essential. Mr. Biden’s trip followed up on a visit to the U.S. in January by Mr. Hu, which set the tone for a cooperative and positive relationship.
But with Mr. Hu scheduled to step down next year, U.S. officials are trying to get the measure of the man who will succeed him. And while the broad outlines of Mr. Xi’s career are known — party functionary from a ranking family, a victim of the Cultural Revolution who has seen poverty firsthand, and who has since spent time in some of the most dynamic parts of China — he remains an unknown quantity (not unlike many of the country’s second tier of top leaders).
Mr. Biden had one-on-one meetings with Mr. Xi and pronounced him a man with whom he can do business, pragmatic and strong. That is a relief since Mr. Xi is perhaps best known for a speech in 2009 when he blamed “foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do than engage in finger-pointing at us” for creating trouble for China. He apparently kept that nationalist streak under control in his discussions with Mr. Biden.
The two men had a great deal to discuss. Both the United States and China are grappling with economic troubles. The U.S. woes are well known, and with China holding more than $1.1 trillion in U.S. Treasury Bills, America’s problems are China’s problems. Mr. Biden reassured his Chinese hosts that China’s investment was safe even after the historic downgrade of the U.S. credit rating and that the U.S. is working to get its economy back on track. China has its own economic problems, stemming ironically from too much growth, rather than too little. Inflation increased 6.4 percent year-on-year in June, the steepest rise in three years. Despite the government’s best efforts, inflation for the year is almost certain to top the target of 4 percent. Those price rises are a source of real concern for Beijing: They fuel domestic unrest and constitute the biggest threat to the government’s quest for legitimacy.
Political issues were also on the agenda. As always, Taiwan remains a thorny issue and the prospect of arms sales to it later this year is certain to trigger an ugly outburst from China. The Chinese government and the vast majority of the Chinese people see those arms sales as promoting Taiwanese independence as well as a violation of a U.S. pledge to phase out such sales (an interpretation Washington disputes). With Taiwan holding elections next year, there will be additional tensions in cross-Strait relations, tensions that will inevitably bleed into China’s relations with the U.S. Other shared concerns include bringing North Korea back to the six-party talks and getting it to honor the commitments Pyongyang made in those negotiations, dampening tensions in East Asia brought about by Beijing’s more assertive foreign policy in the South and East China Seas, as well as helping stabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan and fighting terrorism.
All the challenges in the relationship will be magnified next year as the U.S. enters an election campaign and China prepares for its leadership succession. Both governments need to have confidence in each other as a partner as politics shifts into high gear. A reciprocal visit by Mr. Xi to the U.S. later this year will help that process along.
Confidence was also the key word in Mr. Biden’s stop in Japan before he returned home. A Japan stopover is mandatary after any China visit to assuage fears here that this country is being eclipsed in Washington’s eyes (silly thought that thought in fact is). But such visits are no longer pro forma in the aftermath of the triple catastrophe of March 11. The rituals and language of the alliance have taken on new meaning in the six months since that disaster. Operation Tomodachi was a signal to Japan, along with the rest of Asia, that the U.S. stands beside its allies and partners in their time of need. It was also a signal that the U.S., for all its troubles, remains an Asia Pacific nation, deeply committed to the region and its future. That is a message that the leaders of China would do especially well to remember.