[Viewpoint] Mr. Xi goes to Washington

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[Viewpoint] Mr. Xi goes to Washington

South Korea is truly a global power. But as prominent as it becomes on the world stage, it will always contend with one major geostrategic concern: the fear of entrapment. By entrapment, I mean the fear that Korea could be caught in a conflict of some form between the two giants of the region, the United States and China. This entrapment fear was reflected during the Roh Moo-hyun government in the misbegotten term “strategic balancer,” suggesting that Korea would not play sides and would be neutral in disputes between its ally in Washington and its neighbor in Beijing.

More generally in Asia, this anxiety has been evident in the constant calls from countries in the region for positive and cooperative relations between the United States and China. Every country in Asia is small when compared with these two, and therefore every country has its own version of Korea’s anxiety of being the shrimp crushed between whales. For many, including Korea, the diplomatic “sweet spot” is a vibrant economic and trade relationship with China in combination with a strong political and strategic relationship with the United States.

This is why so much attention this past week was focused on Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States. The presumptive successor to Hu Jintao when Hu finishes his second term in office this coming fall, Xi has been the consensus choice of hundreds of senior Chinese officials as early as 2007, and therefore will come to his new role with a great deal of political legitimacy. The 58-year-old has been dubbed a “princeling” in the party structure, and many hope he offers a new, energetic, and dynamic leadership in China compared with the rather straight-laced and boring Hu Jintao.

The U.S. has a long list of issues for the next leader of China. The People’s Liberation Army’s recent naval assertiveness in the South China Sea has been an object of concern among many, and Washington wants greater transparency into China’s intentions as it builds its military into a dominant regional force. U.S. officials were not happy with China’s outright veto of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, and will most certainly seek greater cooperation from Xi on this issue, as well as on Iran.

The economic list of issues with China is long. At its core are U.S. concerns that China still remains noncompliant with the basic rules and norms of the World Trade Organization. President Barack Obama personally is unhappy with China’s unfair trading practices, the violation of intellectual property rights and artificially low value of the renminbi. On China’s part there is a great deal of anxiety over the U.S. administration’s self-professed “pivot” to Asia, America’s continued arms sales to Taiwan, support of the Dalai Lama and ballooning U.S. budget deficits.

Asians might be concerned that such a long list of difficult issues will only serve to get the U.S. and China off to a bad start under Xi. Indeed, when the two sides read talking points to one another about their list of grievances, it is truly a dialogue of the deaf: Washington and Beijing talking at each other, but not really talking to each other. But folks should not worry too much. While many of these issues may have been raised between Xi and his American hosts, the main “objective” of the visit was for Obama and Xi to get to know each other better. In short, building a personal relationship is important before one can start to do business with each other. In this sense, Obama’s approach to China is very Asian.

But it is also very pragmatic. The United States and China are similar in one respect - trying to change policy in either country is like trying to change the direction of an aircraft carrier. It requires a great deal of time and energy. But in both governments, change moves quickly only when the presidents are personally invested in an issue. Both bureaucracies in this sense respond well to initiatives that come from top leadership. Establishing a close, personal relationship is something the U.S. views as important with this next leader of China if any real change is to be effected. This process started with Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to China this past summer, and it continued with Xi’s sojourn to the U.S. this past week.

Can Xi be influenced in this way? Can Obama (if he gets a second term) persuade Xi? Will a new Chinese leadership behave in a fundamentally different manner than its predecessors, and meet, at least halfway, some of the demands of the West? It is impossible to say at this point. Western press this past week previewed Xi as dynamic and even daring. They cite one example when Xi was unafraid to criticize Western countries such as the U.S. with “full bellies” that condemn others for so-called human rights abuses simply because they are bored. The West hopes that such spunk could be channeled in the direction of positive improvements on U.S.-China bilateral issues.

But this may be a pipe dream. Xi may have been vocal as the presumptive leader, but he cannot be so bold once he becomes the leader. Though he was born into privilege, Xi witnessed the Cultural Revolution first-hand, which would make any Chinese political figure cautious rather than risk-taking. Finally, there is nothing in the Chinese political system that rewards breaking from the conservative mold.

Thus, the coming years of U.S.-China relations will be difficult. Just think how much more difficult the future would be without Obama’s efforts to engage the next leader. For this, the U.S. deserves some credit.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Victor Cha

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