Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping has just wrapped up a successful visit to the United States. The single most important outcome of this trip was his effort to present himself to America as a leader of vision, enthusiasm and responsibility in order to foster a better China-US relationship, thereby boosting bilateral trust.
On February 15th, the Vice President presented a touching story at a luncheon sponsored by The National Committee on United States-China Relations and the US-China Business Council in Washington, DC. As the party chief of Fuzhou in 1992, he helped Mme. Elizabeth Gardner of California attain her dream of visiting Guling (Kuling) on behalf of her late husband Milton who had always wished to revisit where he spent ten years of his childhood. In Guling, Mme. Gardner was greeted by nine Chinese, all in their 90s, who shared a childhood friendship with Milton until 1911 when he left for the States.
This is merely one story among many of friendship across the Pacific and, by telling this, America now sees how the Chinese Vice President views Sino-US relations. His story, dated back to his time of being a city-level leader, displays his caring and respectful leadership. This is the best message America could receive to boost its confidence in China’s dedication to a healthy partnership between the two peoples for the coming decade and beyond.
During his five-day tour of America, Vice President Xi met with executive, federal and state officials, as well as with congressional leadership. US Vice President Joseph Biden accompanied him across the country to return the hospitality that Biden received in Beijing and Chengdu last year; to demonstrate proper US protocol; as well as to nurture relations with his Chinese counterpart. As the next year marks a power transition in both countries, the Chinese Vice President’s meeting with President Obama could be viewed as a quasi-summit. The chemistry between the leaders of both countries will help instill deeper understanding and respect, which is conducive to bilateral trust-based cooperation.
The Vice President’s meeting with Congressional leaders, including the majority and minority leadership of both chambers of the Congress, was an important way to build consensus between the two countries, and to forge consent with the Congress to expand common interests and narrow bilateral differences. Xi was frank in addressing the main issues between the two countries – human rights, Iran’s nuclear development, as well as Syria’s present domestic turmoil. He argued that China’s human rights are “better but not best,” which helped to bridge understanding between Beijing and Washington on this crucial issue. Both China and the US need to improve their human rights performance, but should not preach to each other on the “best” conduct of each nation. As for the pressing Iranian and Syrian issues, the Chinese share the concerns of America and many other stakeholders, but insist that they should be resolved through a peaceful and non-interventionist approach.
The Vice President’s visit to Iowa again showed the humane side of his character. In Muscatine Iowa, the Chinese Vice President said that Roger and Sarah Lande, his host-family 27 years ago, showed America to him, and his understanding of the US started at that time. The Vice President is the highest Chinese official that has ever studied in America in contemporary Chinese history. This was not the case for Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, or the present top leader. In the Chinese political succession culture, most expect Xi to assume the most important leadership position in Beijing in the near future. His fond recollections of Iowa in 1985, and his recent return to the city, have left a memorable imprint on him, which will assure the bond of the two nations.
China and the US are so deeply connected, and their increased interdependence exposes them to mutual vulnerability. While the two-way trade between China and the US has expanded to $440b in 2011, its imbalance is also on the rise, which is especially unhelpful in the year of a US presidential election. In this context, Vice President Xi brought with him a large trade delegation to place a total order of goods for $27.1 Billion. Though this won’t reverse the expanding trade surplus of over $200 Billion, China sent a clear message of slowing the growth of the trade surplus, commensurate with the trend of its growth in global trade surplus. Iowa benefited greatly from this shopping spree: Xi’s business delegation agreed to import biofuel for $1.8 Billion, and $6.7 Billion worth of soybeans from Iowa and California. China’s efforts in balancing trade will help soothe America’s concern on this issue.
In the coming decade, the world will continue to witness China’s growth. Even at an average speed of 8% per annum, China could double the size of its economic scale by 2020, narrowing the gap in size between its economy and America’s. Obviously, this will cause anxiety in the US. Vice President Xi’s visit to the US shows that he is attentive to US concerns and willing to engage America constructively so as to reduce America’s apprehension. To this end, the American government and its people have commended him for his conscious gestures and his actions to respect and engage.
However, China-US relations is the business of these two countries. For the same reason, China also expects the US to be attentive to China’s legitimate concerns and to respect and engage China collaboratively. President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the US one year ago concluded with Americans stating that the two nations shall mutually respect each other’s core interests. When both sides are wary of the other’s intentions, they tend to avoid unhealthy competition and rivalry. Of course, the RMB shall continue to appreciate, but at a pace that both Chinese and American economies can benefit from. Also America’s military presence in East Asia shall help stabilize the region per international laws, rather than go beyond.
Vice President Xi also sought to allay American fears on China’s rising capacity and role in the region by encouraging both countries to be open-minded and cooperative, and stating that “the Pacific is large enough to accommodate them” both. China is embracing a more solid and collaborative path, one that could be expected from a respectable and accountable partner. By leaving 9/11 and the financial crises behind it, America is demonstrating its strength of resilience and recovery. Therefore, this decade bodes well for the new leaders in Beijing and Washington. America’s cordial reception of Chinese Vice President Xi last week and the latter’s gracious delivery of genuine collaboration with the US government and people all herald a new page of refined engagement. Given the responsible commitment of both authorities, China and the US ought to successfully solve their non-exclusive but mutually-reinforcing positions and partnership in the Pacific area.
Shen Dingli is Professor and Executive Dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University and Director of the Center for American Studies.