Even by Chinese standards, the kind of attention that has been accorded to President Xi Jinping’s coming visit to America is unusual. Preparation for the trip had begun in earnest as early as February when it was first announced. Since then Chinese officials, diplomats, and scholars have spared no effort to promote the visit’s significance and potential success.
In a meeting with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who flew to Beijing in August in preparation for Xi’s trip, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the visit as one that would determine the future direction of China-U.S. relations and influence the international and regional situation.
During a joint interview to CCTV News and China Daily last week, State Councilor Yang Jiechi expressed confidence that “substantive results” will come out of the Xi-Obama summit. Expectations are so high, at least on the Chinese side, that some analysts believe Xi’s visit will be as consequential as Deng Xiaoping’s American tour in 1979, a trip that, according to Ezra Vogel, “launch[ed] a new era in [China’s] relations with the United States.”
Although Xi is often touted as the most powerful and charismatic Chinese leader since Deng, it seems unlikely that his visit will generate a similar momentum in driving the world’s most important bilateral relationship forward. When Deng made his highly publicized visit to America over 35 years ago, changes in both countries’ international and domestic contexts converged to create new opportunities for China and America to reframe their relationship in more practical and positive terms.
If history is any indication, Xi may have chosen the worst time to conduct his first state visit to America. With China’s rapid rise and the shifting balance of power between the two countries, China-U.S. relations have been increasingly characterized by more competition than cooperation. It seems that the competitive and negative aspects of the relationship have prevailed as the two countries now find themselves constantly clashing with each other on a host of security and economic issues, such as the South China Sea disputes, cyber security, China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative and its alleged manipulation of the renminbi.
The latest developments in both nations’ domestic politics also cast a long shadow over the prospects of a productive visit. The perception of China as America’s “most significant competitor” will only be magnified in the heat of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which is shaping up to be a China-bashing race. It is possible that Xi has chosen to begin the first leg of his trip in Seattle because of the anticipation of an unfavorable political climate in Washington, as Republican candidates are calling his name and Democratic senators are pressing on human rights issues. Meanwhile, Xi’s professional reputation as the nation’s new “strongman” may have already been tarnished by the recent slowdown in Chinese economy as well as daunting challenges facing his reform initiatives at home.
The combination of these factors certainly creates an unfriendly atmosphere for Xi’s visit and makes it almost impossible for him to repeat Deng’s success. This is not suggesting, however, that Xi’s visit will not be a success — success is in the eye of the beholder (particularly the Chinese government and media) — but Beijing may want to lower some of the expectations and be prepared for more challenges than those confronted by Deng or his other successors.
Even if his visit fails to elevate China-U.S. relations to a new stage, as most likely will be the case, Xi can still congratulate himself for making a conscientious effort to strengthen an increasingly strained relationship. Given the complexity and magnitude of the problems facing the two nations, one has to be realistic and realize that not all of the issues have short-term solutions, or even long-term ones. Managing the China-U.S. relationship is like sailing a boat: it takes great leaders who have the audacity to make big strides forward when the sailing is smooth, and it also takes leaders who have vision and perseverance to steer the boat forward in stormy weather.
So far Xi’s visit has received more than its share of hype before it even starts, and he will most likely be treated to an unusual amount of pomp and ceremony by the outgoing Obama administration after he arrives. The true success of Xi’s trip, however, should not be measured by things that cannot endure – announcements and addresses are not themselves accomplishments. If Deng’s visit in 1979 was about expanding cooperation, then Xi’s task in 2015 will be one of managing crisis, especially at a time when the China-U.S. relationship is allegedly at its “tipping point.”
Xi has demonstrated unusual courage by choosing to visit America at the most unpropitious time. This visit will be a true test of his leadership as China’s most promising leader since Deng. If he can demonstrate unusual wisdom and vision in working with his American counterparts to turn the challenges facing U.S.-China relations into new opportunities, then there is hope that future cooperation can be sustained and confrontation avoided.
ZHANG Guoxi is a PhD candidate the School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University.