Planning for the Obama-Xi Summit
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Planning for the Obama-Xi Summit


On January 28, 1979, Mr. Deng Xiaoping, then China’s vice premier, started his nine-day official visit to the United States, the first such visit by a top Chinese leader since the founding of the People’s Republic. There are many memorable moments from his tour, but the most iconic is undoubtedly when he put on a ten-gallon cowboy hat and waved to the audience in a Texas rodeo. That moment humanized Chinese leaders, who had been demonized by American leaders and mass media for nearly two decades. It was China’s first “charm offensive” to win over the hearts and minds of Americans — and certainly a very successful one by any standard.

A book detailing Deng’s historic visit was published in 2011 and was turned into a documentary, Mr. Deng Goes to Washington, which premiered on May 12, 2015. It could be a pure coincidence that the movie came out just four months before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States. Regardless, one may still wonder if he can replicate the wonders of Deng Xiaoping and leave a lasting imprint on the collective memories of the bilateral relationship.

Mr. Xi is no stranger to the United States, a country he has visited six times before — probably more than any other Chinese leader. He made his first U.S. trip in 1985, then visited twice in the 1990s and once in 2006. In 2012, he returned to Washington as China’s vice president and heir apparent. A year later, as the new president of China, he met with President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands Estate in California. While his first visits were unknown to most people in both countries, the most recent two were widely reported by American and Chinese media.

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Frequent visits do not necessarily translate into good relations, however. Against the background of rising tensions between the two countries over the South China Sea and amidst increasing calls from some U.S. analysts to “get tough on China,” it would seem unrealistic to hope for another historic summit like the one in 1979. Nevertheless President Xi’s visit has the potential to be a great success if both sides — particularly Chinese officials who are in charge of planning his itinerary — are willing to try their best.

Since many members of Congress are among the most vocal critics of China on issues ranging from human rights to trade to currency, it is imperative that the Chinese president visit Capitol Hill and have a face-to-face session (either public or closed-door) with leaders of the House and Senate. In the American system of “separated institutions sharing powers,” Congress can play — and has played — a critical role in the bilateral relationship by shaping public opinion, setting the executive agenda, or blocking policy implementation. That Congress has refused to pass a law to implement IMF reform that will substantially increase China’s voting shares is but one excellent example of congressional influence.

It is almost certain that some members of Congress will raise “politically inconvenient” questions during a hypothetical meeting with the Chinese leader. Whatever the motives of these members — ideological prejudices or constituency interests — it is better to engage them than to avoid them. A face-to-face conversation may not change their views about China; it may even reinforce their preexisting views. But such conservations might help these members to better appreciate Chinese concerns and perspectives. The exchange of views may also reveal misunderstandings on either side that should be clarified. Most importantly, face-to-face interactions personalize the otherwise impersonal state-to-state relations: a pat on the shoulder or a humorous comment could help immensely in building up personal rapport and facilitating discussion on policy issues.

The Chinese president should also plan on meeting with representatives from the American business community. In the 1990s American multinational corporations were the most powerful “China lobby” on Capitol Hill: they played a pivotal role in fighting against congressional attempts to link bilateral trade with Chinese human rights. Their support was also crucial in the passage of legislation that allowed China to join the WTO in 2001. Yet starting from the mid-2000s, the American business community has become increasingly critical of China due to their frustrations with China’s WTO practices and its industrial policies. Mr. Xi should engage American business leaders and address their concerns; otherwise the bilateral relationship may lose one of its pillars.

In the same vein, China’s top leader should also consider meeting with leaders of labor unions and listening to their complaints. China has become an easy scapegoat for the plight of American workers; the trade deficit with China and China’s exchange rate are often cited as the most important culprits for the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs. But the real world of economics is much more complicated than politicians’ simplistic explanations on the campaign trail. Mr. Xi should highlight the benefits of bilateral trade and investment, such as the increasing number — though still rather small in both absolute and relative terms — of jobs created by Chinese investment in the country.

During his 2012 tour, President Xi stopped by a small town in Iowa and had a reunion with old American friends from his 1985 visit. He also watched a basketball game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles before heading back to Beijing. These two items on his itinerary clearly show that he wants to connect with the American people. To continue his public diplomacy, Mr. Xi could be the guest of honor at a baseball game, or he could flip a burger with Obama on the White House lawn. It is also highly desirable that he meet with American students who have studied in China. In the long term there is nothing more important than people-to-people ties in stabilizing the bilateral relationship.

Mr. Deng’s visit was more than 30 years ago. Since historical contexts are crucially different, a repeat of 1979 would seem unlikely. But personality wise, Mr. Xi appears to share many qualities with Mr. Deng: confident, candid, and down-to-earth. Of course, what makes Mr. Xi popular in China may not make him popular in a completely different political culture. Nevertheless, if the September trip is well planned, it could be a successful one.

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