If first impressions count, this is a big one.
Xi Jinping, the man who will run China over the next decade as the incoming Communist Party chief, meets with President Obama for the first time this week. How well the two leaders get along may determine whether the world’s two most powerful countries can work out their growing differences.
A sharp warning preceded Mr. Xi’s week-long visit to the United States. The two nations have a “trust deficit,” said one Chinese official. Indeed, their militaries barely talk to each other, and yet they are each muscling up their forces in Asia in a contest of influence over the world’s most dynamic region.
The two men need to show they can develop the kind of close rapport that will prevent confrontation. Mr. Obama met 10 times with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, and still the bilateral ties have only worsened. China now simply ignores the human rights complaints of Washington while the US laments China’s lack of support on Syria, Iran, and other issues.
Xi may be better prepared to improve communications than was the cool and stiff Mr. Hu. He has a daughter at Harvard and once briefly stayed with a family in Iowa. His father was a leading political reformer, and his wife is a famous folk singer. Xi’s affable, outgoing demeanor will go far to put a warm face on China’s actions.
Yet he is also the product of a secretive selection process, one designed to keep the Communist Party in power. He must operate within the tight consensus of a collective leadership, one that seems incapable of responding well to urban youth who are freedom-demanding and in touch with the world.
China’s leaders seek sympathy and respect for their internal challenges even as they seek to replace longtime American influence in Asia. They’re not succeeding.
China’s bullying of its neighbors has pushed Obama to beef up American naval and air defenses among friendly Asia nations. And the Chinese cyberattacks on the US, China’s theft of intellectual property, and its currency manipulation to boost exports have only increased foreign criticism of Beijing’s authoritarian hand.
China’s budget for internal security now exceeds that of its military, a sign of rising distrust of the people by their rulers. Dissidents are more quickly jailed, and local protests over corruption erupt more often.
Obama can find a way to still speak frankly with Xi about China’s repressive ways while improving communication on other issues, such as North Korea’s nuclear threat and China’s dubious territorial claims. Most of all, the president can be firm about continuing the US defense that has allowed Asia to prosper even as it welcomes China to use peaceful diplomacy within the region’s multilateral forums.
Finding the right place for China within Asia requires that it be transparent about its military intentions. That’s lacking so far. The best outcome of any Obama-Xi rapport would be if China opens up its military to close inspection, something its neighbors expect. Obama has been very open and clear about expanding the US military in Asia. He should expect the same of Xi.