Don’t expect any breakthrough deals from this week’s meeting between the U.S. president and China’s leader-in-waiting. In an election year for Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, who is in line to replace President Hu Jintao this fall, the best outcome to hope for is good chemistry.
Given the tensions in the air, that can hardly be assured. Consider Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s stump bluster about how, on his “first day in office,” he will impose tariffs on any Chinese goods that benefit from “unfair trade practices.” Or the more than five dozen pieces of legislation introduced in Congress in 2011 that took up Chinese behavior on everything from rare earth mining to exports of American flags. President Obama himself has occasionally shown a weakness for tough talk. Vice President Xi also has made a few brusque pronouncements on “foreigners with full bellies.”
The feel-good visits planned for Xi to California and Iowa offer one way to rise above such acrimony. For Americans in particular, the latter trip can be instructive. In 1985, Xi visited Iowa when he was a provincial leader in Hebei to honor a sister-state relationship, touring farms and baseball fields and sharing views at the Rotary Club. Then, Xi was eager to learn modern farming techniques. Now, Iowa does roadshows to China to hawk its goods as U.S. growth wanes. Nor is Hebei the backwater it was back then; its economy is bigger than Hong Kong’s. Barring a serious crisis, China’s economy may be bigger than America’s in 10 years.
China’s tremendous economic growth over the 27 years since Xi’s Iowa trip has been a signal human achievement, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, and enabling billions of consumers around the world to enjoy a higher standard of living. That dynamism continues, and with it the added double-edged benefit of Chinese savings still underwriting U.S. profligacy.
Today, the U.S. and China share an enormous and widening array of interests, such as maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and preventing a global financial meltdown. Just as the U.S. has sometimes seemed oblivious to the enormous internal challenges that China faces, so, too, China has resented or willfully ignored the reality of the new responsibilities that it must shoulder.
The immediate task before Obama and Xi is to build a relationship that will enable their countries to bridge that perceptions gap. In that process, we imagine that Obama can turn the harsh rhetoric of the Republican candidates to his advantage -- something that must make former China hand George H.W. Bush spin in his parachute. Moreover, the situations in Iran and Syria, not to mention recent abductions and killings of Chinese workers in Egypt, Sudan and Thailand, are forcing the Chinese to re-examine their precepts about non-intervention, the importance of upholding global norms and their own relative inability to shape the situation on the ground. All those things can contribute to a convergence of views.
The good news is that Xi, 58, seems better suited to relationship-building than China’s current president. He’s regarded as more affable and spontaneous. And his worldview is colored by his years living in coastal provinces like Zhejiang, home to some of China’s most successful entrepreneurs, such as Zong Qinghou, a soft-drink merchant, and Li Shufu, founder of automaker Geely International Corp. Many of the province’s business owners pride themselves on succeeding without government help, a dynamic China could use more of. Given Xi’s background, for example, he should know China is imperiling its future by letting Google Inc., the Information Age’s biggest name, walk away and blocking Facebook Inc.
That’s not to say that the U.S. and China don’t have different, competing and at times conflicting interests. We’ll spare you the inevitable Valentine’s Day references: Obama and Xi don’t have to love each other, but they do have to get along.
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