Chinese vice president Xi Jinping is back in China, his U.S. visit having gone off without a hitch. Both sides are claiming that the trip was a smashing success and are asserting that the Sino-American relationship is strong and mature. After observing the right protocol in D.C., Xi made Iowa his own field of dreams before showing all the right moves at a Lakers game in Los Angeles. Seeking to take the edge off some minor rough patches with his administration hosts, Xi is the latest leader of China (and before that, the Soviet Union) to try and wow us with his not-so-secret fondness for things American. In Xi’s case, it’s basketball and U.S. football. Thirty years ago, when Yuri Andropov took over from the long-senescent Leonid Brezhnev, it was his closet addiction to jazz and whiskey that assured Americans this was a man we could deal with. And let’s not talk about Deng Xiaoping and his cowboy hat.
In all these cases, philo-Americanism is a useful prop for those coming into power. Far more important for Xi today is the reaction back home, as this was, after all, his society debut, just without a formal tux and a ballgowned partner. Xi showed he could deal confidently with the Americans, especially when he chided the administration not to become a destabilizing factor in the Asian Pacific, regarding its new policy of expanding American military presence in the region. Mustering up the American case, Vice President Biden mildly asserted that human rights will remain a priority for the U.S., and that we will disagree on issues such as China’s refusal to support sanctions on Syria’s murderous regime, or its unfair economic tactics.
Of course, China will continue to build up its military to counter U.S. strength in the region, but there is little that Washington is prepared to do to redress the problems Biden pointed out. Of the two, one would have to say that Xi made out better, as he made the P.R. case for looking forward to dealing with him starting later this year. But nothing really changed thanks to this visit, and Beijing must feel pretty assured that it will be business as usual with the Americans. Which means continuing to test Washington’s resolve, without too much fear of reprisal. Whether that means that Xi has taken our measure and will either really change things for the better or act more assertively once he’s in power, we’ll find out soon enough.