Reading the tea leaves after the pomp, platitudes and posturing during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to Washington DC, Iowa and California last week turns up little evidence that the mutual suspicion between the US and China has eased.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) called it a “trust deficit.” Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, agreed: “Trust is only built over time. It requires clarity of intention, predictability of action and a willingness to give before taking.”
“And all that,” she argued, “is sorely lacking between Washington and China.”
The Chinese, for instance, demand that they be treated as equals to Americans — except when they see it to their advantage to play down their progress.
Xi’s tour of the US was a close mirror image of US Vice President Joseph Biden’s journey to China in August last year. Both had intensive rounds of military reviews, meetings with political and business leaders and festive meals in the capital. Each took a side trip to the west of the other’s nation. Both visits took about the same time.
A precedent was set by then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) in 1997 and US president Bill Clinton in 1998. Jiang made a state visit to Washington, Clinton to Beijing. Jiang addressed an audience at Harvard, Clinton at Peking University. Jiang visited an early English colony in Williamsburg, Virginia, Clinton went to the ancient capital in Xian. Jiang was in the US for nine days, the Chinese insisted that Clinton spend the same time in China.
In contrast, Xi said in Washington that “China is the world’s largest developing country, while the United States is the largest developed country.” The Chinese have long contended they were thus justified in protecting trade and investment, insisting on technology transfers, and grudgingly safeguarding the intellectual property of others.
Xi, son of guerrilla leader and former Chinese vice premier Xi Zhongxun (習仲勛), was careful throughout his visit to toe the party line, for several reasons. Over the past 40 years, he has risen through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by staying close to the party’s positions.
Second, while Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) as CCP general secretary, leader of the country and chairman of the Central Military Commission later this year, he is not there yet. As any American nominee for a position requiring US Senate confirmation will attest, to speak out before taking office could be seen as presumptuous and the kiss of death.
Third, Xi Jinping, like Hu and Jiang before him, cannot hope to have the authority of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who dominated Chinese politics from 1949 to 1976, or Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), the paramount leader until 1997. The regime in Beijing has evolved into a collective rule in which the top leader appears to be but the first among equals.
In particular, Xi Jinping could make no new policy on security or agreements with the US because he does not yet have the blessing of the People’s Liberation Army, an increasingly independent institution. Among Xi Jinping’s earliest tasks will be to cultivate its allegiance.
US-China relations got thrown into the US presidential election campaign last week when Mitt Romney, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, tore into US President Barack Obama’s China policy in an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal.