By Don Keyser.

The U.S.-China bilateral agenda is brimming with frictions, diverging perspectives, and outright conflicts of interest — what senior Chinese officials now routinely characterize as “a deficit of mutual trust” or, more bluntly, “strategic mistrust.”  

(1) Broad strategic issues emerging as an established superpower rubs up against the new ambitions, self-confidence, military capabilities, and assertive national pride of a rising power. China’s South China Sea claims are one example; another is the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. 

(2) Policy differences flowing from the divergence in strategic aims, e.g., North Korea, Iran, Arab world ferment, and South Asia.

(3) Hardy perennials on the bilateral agenda, notably concerning Taiwan, Tibet and human rights. 

(4) The familiar, seemingly intractable economic and commercial disputes: on the U.S. side, complaints about Chinese trading practices, failure to protect intellectual property and undervalued yuan; and on the Chinese side, anger at U.S. blocking on national security grounds of desired investment in U.S. firms.

These issues provide the backdrop to Vice President Xi Jinping’s 13-17 February visit; they will predictably shape media reporting and analytical commentary on the trip’s “success” and “results.”  Xi arrives at the invitation of Vice President Biden; approximately one year after Presidents Hu and Obama agreed in Washington to work towards a “cooperative partnership”; and about 40 years after Nixon’s opening to China.  Xi will meet with President Obama and the usual panoply of senior Obama administration officials, congressional leaders and prominent former officials and business leaders.  

But Xi’s visit is not aimed at narrowing gaps in perception and policy.  At most, this is a peripheral goal – a serendipitous outcome that would be as welcome as it is unanticipated.  Xi is the leader-in-waiting and not, as President George W. Bush once put it, the “decider.”  Tangible results are not in the cards.  Each side will recite well-rehearsed positions; listen courteously to the other side’s presentation; and, in a separate corner of the brain, try to take the measure of the interlocutor’s intellectual fire-power, confidence, style and “willingness to deal.”  Americans long for another Deng Xiaoping or perhaps at least another Zhu Rongji; Chinese hope for another Nixon, Kissinger or at worst another President Bush (the elder).  In this, neither side’s dreams are apt to be realized. 

Xi’s trip is principally about shaping images.  For host and guest alike, the primary audience will be domestic opinion.  The real goals are (1) “getting to know you” and (2) Xi’s debutante ball “coming-out” appearance.  If President Obama wins reelection, and Xi assumes power as expected, they will be dealing with each other for four years.  So it behooves both sides to establish an early “personal working relationship” – or at least to convey to their public the impression that they have made a good-faith effort. 

In this, Xi’s trip recalls precisely then-VP Hu Jintao’s comparable visit 27th April -3th May, 2002 in his final flight glide to assumption of the party, state and military commission top positions from President Jiang Zemin.  Hu’s 2002 visit created the template; Vice President Xi’s team has adhered to it meticulously as to sacred text.  

For President Obama, Xi’s visit is low-risk, low-gain; it is almost routine, although U.S. media will be quick to spotlight perceived lapses from expectations and desired outcomes.  For Xi (as for Hu a decade ago), however, the personal stakes are much higher.  Any perceived blunder — including off-message ad lib remarks, inadequate grasp of policy nuances or even failure to respond effectively to highly mediagenic “anti-China” demonstrations — might cost Xi domestic support, with uncertain consequences for his accession at the fall Party congress. 

Hence the Chinese have calibrated the ceremony, symbols and substance for the Washington schedule and the “outside Washington” visits (to Iowa and Los Angeles) so as to avoid the unexpected, underline the “win-win” nature of U.S.-China “cooperative partnership” and showcase to maximum advantage Xi’s personal charm and statesmanlike qualities.  Ten years ago Hu Jintao smiled at school children; joked drily about sharing the “secret technology” accounting for his jet-black hair; schmoozed with state and local officials; and displayed his high-tech background and interests while visiting Intel Corporation in Silicon Valley.  Xi will aim to accomplish the same during his encounters with “ordinary” farmers in Iowa, Los Angeles port executives, state governors and city mayors, and the inevitable school children. 

Scene-setters offered by Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai (in Beijing on 9th Feb.) and Ambassador Zhang Yesui (in Washington on 10th Feb.) have made abundantly plain the limited Chinese goals and expectations.  They accentuated the positive, portrayed Xi’s trip as an important follow-up to the Hu-Obama agreements a year ago, and highlighted the importance of building “mutual trust” and “complementary … win-win” policies that take into respectful account the other side’s “important core interests.”  In much the same way, U.S. National Security Council Senior Asia Director Russel sought in his 10th of February “telephone conference” with media to accentuate the high importance of constructive U.S.-China relations, downplay specific expectations for the trip, and – in the usual gesture to domestic U.S. concerns — stress that Xi’s hosts will not shy away from making tough, principled presentations on human rights and other matters.

Don Keyser is a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. Putting aside the very likely ignorance in the allegory of the Pacific Ocean Xi makes use of in his speech in the U. S., I wonder how the West reads on it? Besides, is it a perfect opportune time for a sincere culture exchange on it?

    1. Dear Mr. Cairncross:

      Thank you for your comment and question. I’m not altogether certain which line in Vice President Xi’s public remarks in the U.S. piqued your interest. Vice President Xi replied in detail to questions put to him, prior to his departure from China, in a “written interview” by the Washington Post. He made short formal remarks at the luncheon co-hosted for him at the State Department by Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton. He engaged in a give-and-take session with “U.S. business leaders.” And he delivered a 20-minute lunchtime speech on February 15 at a large gathering hosted by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, the U.S.-China Business Council and other U.S. civic groups involved in promotion of commercial, political, academic and cultural ties with China.

      Vice President Xi’s comments were similar, in tenor and substance, on each of those occasions. His so-called February 15 “major policy address” – the one to which I imagine your question has reference – emphasized themes, observations and general “proposals” that are quite familiar to American ears. In that speech he referred, for example, to the China-U.S. relationship as “an unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead.” Overall, his comments were very much according to the usual script, and indeed closely followed those made by President Hu Jintao at a similar event when he visited Washington in January 2011.

      Xi, as Hu Jintao and other Chinese senior leaders had done in the past, took the occasion to emphasize the high degree of common interests held by China and the U.S. within the Asia-Pacific region. Xi told his audience: “As the interests of China and the United States converge most closely in the Asia-Pacific … this region should naturally become an important area where China and the United States engage in positive interactions and pursue mutually beneficial cooperation.” Xi went on to underline the point – again, a standard one made by Chinese leaders during the past decade – that “China welcomes a constructive role with the U.S. in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific … Our world is undergoing complex and profound changes. China and the U.S. should meet challenges together and share responsibilities in international affairs. This is what the China-U.S. cooperative partnership calls for and what the international community expects from us.”

      When President Bush came to office in January 2001, many in the upper reaches of his administration held that China had become a “peer competitor” and prospective “future adversary.” They believed that China’s strategy was to marginalize the U.S. presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific region over time. Reacting to this well-publicized set of beliefs embraced by the so-called American “neocons,” senior Chinese leaders insisted to a succession of American counterparts, including Secretary of State Powell in summer 2001, that China had no desire whatsoever to “push America out” of Asia. To the contrary, Chinese leaders asserted that they saw the American role in Asia as one necessary to maintenance of peace and stability in the region. That was music to some ears, and was greeted with skepticism by others. In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., however, China was quick to align with the U.S., expressing sympathy for American losses, pronouncing solidarity against terrorist acts, and taking concrete measures supportive of U.S. policy goals. China stepped up cooperation with the U.S. on high-profile issues involving the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan/Pakistan and the Persian Gulf. Contrary to the expectations and fears of the Bush administration, China did not act in the UN Security Council to veto sanctions on Iraq, and it made only pro forma objections to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. All of this underlined China’s stated policy of emphasizing “constructive cooperation” with the U.S. while reserving differences and working toward solutions in areas where there were conflicts.

      So all of this has been part of the Chinese rhetoric, and U.S.-China dialogue, over the past decade. Vice President Xi’s highly scripted, rather upbeat and generally soothing remarks in Washington can thus be read as an affirmation that China’s policy direction and strategic intentions are unchanged.

      As to the cultural exchange prospects that you mention, China and the U.S. agreed around two years ago to launch an expanded program of student exchanges. Today there are well over 100,000 Chinese students pursuing undergraduate and advanced degrees in the U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, taking positive note of this, announced during her May 2010 visit to Beijing that the Obama administration aimed to send 100,000 American students to China over the coming four years. Chinese State Councilor for Education and Science & Technology Liu Yandong responded that China would provide “positive assistance” toward this goal, and would also increase the number of Chinese government-funded scholarships for Chinese pursuing doctorate degrees in the U.S.

      I hope this is responsive to your query.

      Sincerely, Don Keyser

      1. My very short remarks which is not limited to your blog posting may have had too much – not so much as you’ve covered in your response – that are said not clear enough, but, since there’s difference between what Xi said in the States and what is put at the same time on the mass media in China for the populace to read, as it is usual in the diplomacy and somewhat reasonable due to the cultures in sharp contrast, and that what is set inside China is more important than elsewhere: the image branding for instance is an issue engaged more domestically than internationally, I had therefore assumed that Xi’s utterance in lettering in China must be in the first place to have been studied on. Posed in allegory popular in China, it says that, literally translated as I myself do it now, The Pacific Ocean is big enough to contain our two nations! (Why then bothered and even blockaded by such “triflings” as the differences, the arguements, the bitter rivalries, etc., etc., between us; what it might be so ever.) For mentioning of a sea – any sea – like this one transports the Chinese people at once to the allegorical significance that it is big and great, and arouses a bellyful of ruminations of theirs on that, Our Prime Minister has a belly so big that a boat can be held in and paddlings made about, as the Chinese proverbial claims: the Prime Minister’s breast is hugeous: the broad-mindedness is the point! The allegory itself is an advocacy which is meant for being educational, not only to the Chinese people, so that it might have displeased those who are wondering aloud, How could it be: even bigger than ours! And I believe that, no sooner is their patience being challenged than they have lost say an opportune time for what I said before, a cultural exchange opportunity: the Chinese would be greatly amazed if somebody draws up a picture of the sea completely different from what they have taken for: the whale in it, and the fish of all sorts, and the watery depths of the bottomless pit. (Does it work in China: it has worked well in China, believe me, for these are the common features of all the men.) Then the question comes: who would be enabled to do it? Would be a qualified scuba diver a candidate for it? And I wish I were.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *