Xi Jinping, future Chinese president, faces test on first White House visit

Xi Jinping, China's president-in-waiting, will be greeted with friendly words of cooperation in his first White House visit. But the underlying US-China tensions will be hard to hide.

Lintao Zhang/AP/File
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping attends a meeting with US and Chinese business leaders in Beijing last year.

For decades, the White House has welcomed soon-to-be Chinese leaders to Washington with happy faces and professions of cooperation. But when Xi Jinping, the man set to become China’s president later this year, makes his White House debut Tuesday, President Obama might find it harder to keep underlying economic and political frustrations under wraps than past presidents have, some analysts say.

Key issues in the US-China relationship – trade, currency policy, cybersecurity, and human rights –  are sharper than just a few years ago, and an anti-China election-year climate has increased pressure.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney, for instance, insists that if elected president he would use his first day in the Oval Office to declare China a currency manipulator. And the Obama administration itself in January announced a reorientation of US defense priorities toward Asia.

The result is that “the game plan for the Obama administration may be generally the same on this visit as it was for us in 2002, which was … to lower expectations for deliverables and focus on the relationship,” says Michael Green, who was the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian affairs when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Bush White House in 2002.

Yet the current situation means it will be “harder” than when Mr. Hu first visited “to invest in the relationship, emphasize the positive, [and] lower expectations,” says Mr. Green, now a senior Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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The stormier climate will test Xi, who will want to show his domestic audience that he can hold his own with the Americans even as he charms them. Xi, who will also visit Iowa and Los Angeles, is purported to be a fan of American culture.

Xi, who technically is being hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, is also expected to announce some sizable agricultural purchases while in the Midwest, in an effort to dent criticisms of China’s trade surplus with the US.

In addition to US-China issues, Xi and US leaders are expected to address international concerns, including North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

On North Korea, the US made something of a “welcome to Washington” gesture by announcing Monday that a US delegation will travel to Beijing to meet with North Korean officials Feb. 23. Given that China is most interested in promoting stability on the Korean Peninsula, it favors US engagement with Pyongyang.

The US, on the other hand, is worried that North Korea, under new leader Kim Jung-un, could decide in the coming months to carry out either another nuclear test or a missile test – actions that would serve to bolster the new leader’s credentials, but that could also set off a new regional crisis.

Coloring all these issue is the Obama administration's new policy of “pivoting” toward Asia. The policy includes new US military bases in the region and revitalized relations with Southeast Asian countries. But Green says the administration has since toned down its rhetoric, which set off alarms in Beijing.

“Since our friends in Beijing found 'pivot' too aggressive and threatening, I’ve heard the administration is going to change it to ‘pirouette,’ ” he says. “We’re going to pirouette to Asia.”

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