Chinese Vice President Xi Jin Ping traveled to the US amid personal memories and political ambitions. In addition to Washington and Los Angeles, Xi made an unusual stop in Muscatine, Iowa. The eccentric visit to a small town in America’s Breadbasket was a trip back in time for China’s next president, who first visited Iowa 32 years ago, in 1985. At the time, American authorities had to make an exception to allow a communist representative to enter the country. During this first visit, Xi led a delegation from the province of Hebei, sent to study the productive pig farms of the Midwest. The differences between the two countries were vast, but China was just beginning a social experiment that in a few decades would rival the supremacy of the United States.
It is on the crest of this wave of progress that the young CCP official returned to the United States at the head of a much more important mission. His meeting with Obama before having lunch with his counterpart Joe Biden, was a premature breach of protocol. Xi is still Vice President, but at the White House it is no secret that next fall he will be named Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, and consequently President of the Republic. If there is any uncertainty about future leadership, it regards Obama, not Xi.
The agenda of meetings was informal and relaxed, and the Chinese leader-to-be did not make any commitments, nor did he sign contracts. The meeting was more a matter of protocol and formality, as prefaced by the diplomatic statements released before the trip: “What has happened over the past 40 years tells us that a sound and stable China-U.S. relationship is crucial for both countries…We must not allow frictions and differences to undermine the larger interests of our business cooperation.”
Diplomacy aside, there are many issues still on the table. Obama plays the Janus act, railing against China while at the same time shaking her hand. Standing against The Middle Kingdom he plays to his democratic electoral base, factory workers, unions, and immigrants who are concerned about the invasion of cheap Chinese products and unfair competition responsible for factory closings and the resulting unemployment. Environmentalists raise concerns about pollution in China, and human rights groups push Obama for a harder line on Tibet. Seizing on the malcontent, Republicans accuse Obama of being weak for not fighting the alleged manipulation of the renminbi, kept low to favor Chinese exports.
But when Obama goes to Wall Street, his tone against China softens. He is reminded of the worldwide financial interests that are at stake, of the political cohesion and economic might wielded there. The immense investment in the “factory of the world” cannot be neglected. Pulled in opposite directions by contrasting interests, Obama plays a game of concessions and refusals, and China inevitably asks for more than Washington is prepared to concede.
Beijing demands access to more sophisticated technologies, vital to the improvement of its industrial assets and environmental protection, but the US stonewalls. It wishes to gain entry to certain sectors of American commerce but is denied by political opposition, all the while hoping for financial stability to safeguard the value of the US dollar, in which ⅔ of its forex are denominated. Stopping short of seeking advanced military hardware, China seeks a political solution to Taiwan, asking the Pentagon not to sell any additional weapons to the island nation. Washington’s response is typically duplicitous.
Obama isn’t the only leader who is subject to internal pressure. Public opinion in China is nothing like that in the United States, and the political structure that will bring Xi Jin Ping to power is light years away from Washington, but that does not mean that Xi will not have to deal with contradictory forces. The future Chinese President is an innovator, aware of the benefits of a dynamic economy. A multifaceted extrovert who loves Hollywood movies, Xi Jin Ping is the antithesis of a Communist Party official, but his brilliant career betrays his steadfast loyalty to his party. The younger generations, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals would all wish for China to be more open to the west, while the bureaucracy and banks need stability. Success for Xi lies in pragmatism and moderate reform, as powerful party forces temper any attempts at drastic change. His election to helm the Party will be a mediation among different lines and several vested interests. He will not only be “everybody’s leader”, but also a leader to represent everybody’s aspirations.
The “unofficial G2 summit” in Washington is a reminder that the two most powerful men on earth are not exempt from prudence, compromise, and tactics. Both leaders exist in a system of uncertainties, constantly recalibrating relationships and disagreements, where each is subject to his own set of market influences, public opinion, and political whim. There will be no great showdowns as the two leaders will show their ability, not to find the best solution in absolute terms, but to conciliate many requests and come out on top without humiliating the opponent. What may have appeared as weakness will give rise to a new, different power.