China’s current vice president and likely future leader, Xi Jinping, is in Washington today for a visit widely understood to be part of his preparation to take over power from Hu Jintao later this year. Much as when Hu visited the U.S. before becoming head of state, Xi will be treated as the new most important man in China. Yet his meetings with America’s top leaders, from President Obama on down, will be just as much a chance for Xi to size up the administration’s new policies toward Asia as they are an opportunity for U.S. officials to get a sense of whom they will be dealing with starting this fall.
On that score, both sides will adhere to all diplomatic ritual and protocol, undoubtedly with some confident claims that Messrs. Obama and Xi have started forging a positive and close working relationship. But there will be strong underlying tension in the meetings. Washington has been increasingly frustrated with China’s intransigence on issues ranging from North Korea to last week’s failure to support U.N. sanctions on Syria. The once-grand hopes for a “G-2” relationship that would help structure the future of Asian and global issues has long been put quietly in a drawer. In its place, a more assertive (in Chinese eyes, aggressive) U.S. policy in Asia has emerged that includes expanding the number of nations willing to give access to U.S. military forces, dialogue with old allies on enhancing relations, and a free-trade agreement movement that currently excludes Beijing.
The question is whether Chinese leaders believe there is anything to this U.S. “pivot” to Asia or whether they look at our still-sputtering economy and calculate that the just-released cuts in our defense budget will mean a slowly shrinking U.S. role in Asia no matter what rhetoric the administration uses. Traveling throughout Southeast Asia last week, I heard numerous doubts about the new U.S. strategy and concerns that, even if it was real, it might not outlast the Obama administration. Thus, Xi and his party will be certain to try and see whether U.S. officials appear more accommodating behind closed doors than they have been in recent public comments.
Given the stakes for both sides, Xi’s visit is certain to be proclaimed a success. Truly contentious issues will likely be set aside, for now, and Xi will be able to go back having shown that he is able to deal with the Americans, while the Obama administration will be able to point to its new strategy as having righted Sino-U.S. relations. The reality is, though, that the two sides have moved farther apart in the past several years and that there is little likelihood of a meaningful reset in ties. Of course, given how well the reset with Russia worked, maybe keeping expectations low is a good thing. At the least, if a new realism takes root on both sides, it may lead to a more effective working relationship. Xi moves on to California and Iowa next, two places where he will certainly find a more genuinely warm welcome.