HONG KONG – As expected, the visit to the United States by China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, did not result in any policy breakthroughs. He is, after all, only the crown prince and has not yet been anointed No. 1.
The trip continued a practice begun 10 years ago when China’s then vice president, Hu Jintao, was invited to Washington by his American counterpart, Dick Cheney, so that the U.S. could take the measure of the man scheduled to become China’s leader.
On this visit there were strong echoes of the Hu trip a decade ago. In 2002, then Vice President Hu noted that it was a significant time because it was 30 years since Richard Nixon had made his historic visit to China in February 1972, a visit that Nixon claimed had changed the world.
Similarly, this month, Vice President Xi noted the significance of the timing of his visit — the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China and the issuance of the Shanghai Communiqué. Then as now, human rights groups called on the U.S. to put pressure on the visiting Chinese leader to improve human rights in China. But such calls are likely to get as much — or as little — of a response now as they did then.
Still, there have been changes. In 2002, the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian was president in Taiwan, and Hu warned that “Taiwan independence” forces could bring about catastrophic consequences. This year, with Taiwan now governed by Ma Ying-jeou, Xi did not sound the same warnings.
Visits by Chinese leaders to the U.S. are useful in shedding light on the personality of individuals. In 2002, Hu Jintao came off as stiff and somewhat aloof. Even in China, Hu appears impassive in public.
By contrast, Vice President Xi took pains to show his personal side. He flew to the small town of Muscatine, Iowa, for a reunion and tea with “old friends” he had met 27 years ago, during his first visit to the U.S., and took time to watch an NBA game — gestures that certainly scored points with the American public.
Noting that the Obama administration has said repeatedly that the U.S. “welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China with a bigger role in the world,” Xi reciprocated by saying that “China welcomes the U.S. playing a constructive role in promoting the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region, and at the same time, we hope the U.S. side will truly respect the interests and concerns of countries in the region, including China.”
China traditionally has emphasized setting aside differences with other countries — something that was said recently to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. So, Xi stressed the need to manage differences between China and the U.S., knowing that America wouldn’t agree to keep silent on issues like human rights and intellectual property right disputes.
The Obama administration went out of its way to honor China’s next leader, according him a lengthy audience with the president while giving him an elaborate reception at the State Department and a 19-gun salute at the Pentagon.
Xi certainly noticed these gestures. It is hoped that, when he is China’s leader, he will remember the warmth of his reception when dealing with the U.S. The Xi trip shows that China and the U.S. recognize each other’s importance and each is reaching out to the other to ensure a smooth relationship in the coming decade.
It is certainly in the interests of both countries, and that of the world, for the two to work out their differences and ensure that they will work together to resolve global problems, rather than allow problems in the bilateral relationship to get in the way of the resolution of international issues, such as global warming and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
As far as China’s national image is concerned, Deng Xiaoping, by donning a cowboy hat while visiting the U.S. in 1979, went far to “connect” with the American public, but that goodwill was undone by the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Jiang Zemin, too, humanized China with his fondness for singing and reciting the Gettysburg Address. Perhaps Xi Jinping, in the future, can imbue the U.S.-China relationship with new life with the help of his warmer, outgoing personality. While difficult to quantify, it would be a major boost for the Washington-Beijing relationship.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @FrankChing1