As The Diplomat reported earlier this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will make his first official state visit (Sunnylands 2013 doesn’t count here) to the United States sometime this year. What should interested observers of U.S.-China relations keep an eye on leading up to this visit and what should we expect out of the visit itself? Well, gather around dear readers, as I attempt to peer into The Diplomat‘s crystal ball and try my hand at the perilous task of predicting the future of U.S.-China ties.
First things first: when will the visit occur? Most prognosticators currently predict September as a likely date for this state visit given that Xi will already be in New York then for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. What’s interesting about that timing is that it will allow plenty of time for other major bilateral visits to occur — as my China-focused colleague Shannon points out, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet Xi, Xi will meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin and possibly even Kim Jong-un, and Obama will meet Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Additionally, a fall state visit would allow U.S. and Chinese diplomats to iron out the details of ongoing bilateral initiatives including the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), a likely subject on the agenda of any impending U.S.-China state visit.
The agenda will likely focus on positive areas of mutual benefit and sideline points of contention. In general, the United States and China prefer to address positive areas for mutual benefit in grand state visits. When Hu Jintao visited the United States, bilateral joint statements focused mostly on economic cooperation, building “strategic trust,” expanding military-to-military ties, and addressing fairly uncontroversial “global challenges.” When the two sides do address areas of disagreement, they tend to evade issues affecting China’s core national interests. For example, last November, U.S. President Barack Obama managed to leave Beijing with a guarantee that China would cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption — a development that was heralded as a diplomatic coup for the United States. However, the issue of climate change wasn’t a sensitive issue in the same way that cybersecurity and South China Sea issues are today. If Obama and Xi do discuss the United States government’s indictment of five PLA officers for cyber espionage last year or China’s most recent legal position paper on the South China Sea, expect it to be done entirely out of the public eye. In a best-case scenario, we could see both sides acknowledging a divergence of opinion on these matters in a joint statement (similar to how previous statements have handled the issue of human rights). Remember, it’s legacy-building time for Obama — meaning his administration will seek to use this visit to showcase the progress they have made on U.S.-China relations.
This may be the visit to really bring the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) to a close. Working under the assumption of a September 2015 timeline, this state visit might be an opportune time for both sides to announce a breakthrough on the burgeoning Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) talks. The most recent status reports on talks have clarified that U.S. negotiators and their Chinese counterparts are exchanging the all-important “exclusion lists” that denote which critical industries will remain off-limits to foreign investors. With potentially seven months to go, we’re very likely to see something close to a final BIT announced during the visit. The BIT is also the perfect example of a mutually beneficial agreement that would allow both governments to present the visit as a success to their domestic audiences. Crucially, for the United States, concluding a BIT in good faith with China should send a message that Beijing isn’t being economically contained. Contrary to present narratives about the Trans-Pacific Partnership as an attempt to economically contain and exclude China from a major free-trade area in its own region, a BIT could pave the way to the U.S. and China eventually converging on economic issues, preventing the emergence of what some have called an “economic Cold War.”
Expect the unexpected: Xi could use his platform in Washington to send a message. As Shannon has recently noted, Xi Jinping, like most of his predecessors, increases the accessibility of his vision for China’s domestic audience through the use of catchphrases. Xi’s first catchphrase that really had implications for China’s foreign relations was made during his 2012 visit to United States as China’s then-vice president and president-in-waiting. He described his aspiration for a “new type of great power relations.” In recent years, that phrase has somewhat stagnated and failed to catch on between the United States and China. Xi’s visit to Washington undoubtedly presents him with a global spotlight and an opportunity to redefine the medium-term evolution of U.S.-China ties. This is a bit of a wild-card prediction, but Xi could choose to seize his moment in Washington and either attempt to reinvigorate his old catchphrase or 2012 or come up with something new altogether. I’ll be curious to see if Xi chooses to respond to recent statements by the Obama administration that outright acknowledge major areas of competition and divergence between the U.S. and China. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry remarked, prior to his trip to Beijing for the APEC Ministerial last year, that the U.S. and China “do not simply agree to disagree” anymore. Similarly, the Obama administration’s recently released National Security Strategy noted that “there will be competition” with China (though the U.S. rejects “the inevitability of confrontation”). If Xi is to riposte or differ, he may chose to do it in Washington.
Expect much pomp and circumstance in the United States. China, as a matter of practice, measures the relative importance of state visits by their adherence to good diplomatic protocol. In the past, Chinese leaders have left the United States insulted and disappointed at the White House’s reluctance to host them for state dinners. Indeed, in recent years, Beijing has gradually ramped up its reception of foreign leaders. Additionally, given the positive publicity surrounding recent state visits by other Asian leaders to the United States — notably, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — there may be slight competitive undertones. But mixed in with all the formalities, expect Xi to take some opportunities to display his carefully cultivated man-of-the-people image. During Xi’s 2012 visit to the U.S., he not only wined and dined with the Obama administration but visited “old friends” he had met during a 1980s trip to Iowa — and even took in a Lakers basketball game in Los Angeles.
I’d be curious to hear what our readers think will be areas to watch during Xi’s trip to Washington. Do leave a comment with your take on what is sure to be one of 2015’s more memorable bilateral summits.