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Xi Jinping and Barack Obama’s awkward Valentine’s Day embrace

Xi Jinping and Barack Obama’s awkward Valentine’s Day embrace

The masters of scheduling for both Chinese vice president Xi Jinping – heir presumptive to that nation’s top position – and US president Barack Obama have decried that their principals will meet on Valentine’s Day. On the face of it, though, it doesn’t look like there is going to be a lot of kissing and hugging during this meeting. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

In fact, this visit is actually something of a gamble for both the Chinese and the Obama’s administration. Xi Jinping is almost certain to become the country’s next president, replacing Hu Jintao, when the party makes its final selection public later this year. First, however, Xi is expected to become China’s Communist Party chief later in 2012, and then assume the country’s presidency in 2013. He arrives at the White House about a year after a state visit by current Chinese President Hu Jintao.

With this visit, the Chinese may also be making a statement they expect their next leader will be dealing with Barack Obama for years to come and so they want him to get a full measure of the man Xi will be dealing with in the future. At the same time, according to analysts, Xi’s task is to “keep his cool” during his public and private meetings, even as he has to be tough enough in the clinches to satisfy the hardliners left back in Beijing who will be watching his performances closely while he’s away.

Meanwhile, as far as Barack Obama is concerned, a key risk comes from appearing too conciliatory or too obsequious towards his visitor (giving Republican opposition an opening for critical salvos against him), or even, perhaps, coming across as too tough, thus giving the meetings a sense of impending failure. Given his relative success, so far, in gaining popular support among voters as carrying out successful foreign policy leadership (in contrast to his economic management, perhaps), a less-than-successful summit with the Chinese leader-to-be could cast a pall on voter perceptions of Obama’s foreign affairs and international security success in the lead up to the election. There’s nothing like handing your opponents a club to beat you with – should the visit end up being perceived as not having gone well.

Well then, do the two sides have anything they can talk about? One answer, of course, is that they have everything there is to talk about during this visit. In the way those periodic, eyeball-to-eyeball US-Soviet summits used to be a high-wire act that gave shape to the entire international affairs climate, back in the day, the US-China relationship is now, arguably, the most important bilateral axis in international politics and economics and touches almost everything.

In international political terms, the two nations disagree on the situation in Syria (as highlighted by the Chinese veto of the UN Security Council resolution on that crisis), the expansion of Chinese interests and impact in the South China Sea region, the perception the Chinese intend to create a “blue water navy” for force projection deep into the Pacific Basin, how best to rein in the presumed nuclear ambitions of Iran as well as that of a new and untested regime in North Korea. And speaking about Chinese domestic issues, they can certainly find ways to disagree on human and civil rights inside that nation. And that list is just for starters.

In international economic terms, moreover, the two nations continue to agree to disagree on how much (unfair) control the Chinese exert on the exchange rate level of their currency, how best to resolve a whole range of export-driven issues affecting the US and the rest of the world – especially additional markets for and limitations on US agricultural commodity exports, whether China will assist in providing any help in restoring liquidity in the eurozone and for its members, and how to integrate China’s growing hoard of foreign debt into the international financial regimen without major waves. And that’s just for starters there as well.

The 58-year-old Xi has been to the US before – but in rather different circumstances. Back in 1985, he led a delegation to the American Midwest to study pig production – something Iowa is very big on and the Chinese are, then as now, major consumers of. In contrast to many Chinese leaders – but increasingly true of his own generational cohort – Xi is well-travelled throughout the West, his daughter attends Harvard under an assumed name, and he is reputed to be a fan of American World War II movies – all in contrast to the more Russophile Hu Jintao.

Like many Chinese leaders, Xi graduated with an engineering degree from Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University and then gained a doctorate from Tsinghua for on-the-job studies of ‘Marxist theory and ideological education’. Xi is married to Peng Liyuan, a famous military singer of patriotic songs.

During his career in the Chinese government and Communist Party, Hu Jintao had worked his way up via tough, unrewarding jobs in China’s hardscrabble interior. By contrast, Xi’s father was Communist Party stalwart Xi Zhongxun, who was deeply involved in China’s turn towards capitalism and who had helped develop the economically explosive Shenzen special economic zone and Xi then rose through party jobs in China’s entrepreneurial coastal centres. Given Xi’s background, Chinese and western specialists all point to this upbringing as a positive sign for economic changes in China in the future.

As Chinese central bank economist Li Daokui told western media, “These people got their college education in the honeymoon years of reform and opening up, in 1977 and 1978 when the country was just beginning to be transformed. Those who were most excited were college students. These people are intrinsically believers in reform and opening up.”

While Xi is probably a lock to pip the top job, he will still end up being part of a larger collective leadership cadre in China. Close economic management will likely end up in the hands of Li Keqiang, apparent heir to Wen Jiabao as prime minister, and Wang Qishan is concerned the most likely preferred candidate for first vice prime minister. Besides Xi, Wang also has significant US experience – in his case dealing with US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner. Wang was also a protégé of Zhu Rongji, the economic reformer who was himself prime minister from 1998 to 2003.

In terms of Xi’s actual trip this time, he will spend some real face time with vice president Joe Biden, continuing conversations that began during Biden’s recent visit to Beijing, as well as meetings with secretary of state Hillary Clinton and senior US defence officials and generals. White House officials say the visit is supposed to highlight a “cooperative yet competitive relationship”, while dealing with key differences over trade and human rights – even as it should be seen in the larger picture of Obama’s efforts to refocus American policy towards the Asia-Pacific region. Or as deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said “From the beginning of this administration, the president has really made a concerted effort to focus American foreign and economic policy on the Asia-Pacific region.” (And away from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that could well have swallowed the Obama administration alive.)

Commenting on what Xi is likely to offer, David Lampton, head of the China Studies Program at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said Xi may well be prepared to give reassurances about China’s regional intentions. “I am fully confident after having just been in Beijing and talked to people there, they understand [that] alarming the rest of Asia is not good for them.  And I believe Vice President Xi’s visit here in part is to reassure the world about the continuity that as Chinese power grows, it will not become more unreassuring and more threatening.”

Xi arrives on Monday, and the next day he begins a full slate of meetings and events including a two-hour session with his official host, the vice president, as well as time in the Oval Office with the president. Subsequently, there will be a lunch with Hillary Clinton as well as those Pentagon conversations about that turn by the US towards the Pacific Basin – as well as the Chinese strategic stretch into the same turf.

Xi is also supposed to have a roundtable with American and Chinese business leaders. It requires little in the way of clairvoyance to expect he will hear concerns about Chinese trade practices and the need for that ever-receding ‘level playing field’. Tony Blinken, deputy assistant to the president and national security advisor to Biden told a White House briefing, “It is important for the Chinese leadership to hear directly from our business community, both the promise but also the problems of doing business with China, and also for them to hear from us about the critical importance of the level playing field.”

Because Xi is not yet president, White House officials have told the media that the visit is an investment in relationship-building. That, in turn, means few big-time deliverables, although there will inevitably be some more modest trade agreements to be signed by everyone and the usual photo of handshaking and smiles.

Following all this frank, open and honest discussion, Xi will then go to Muscatine, Iowa, the part of the country he visited in 1985 for those pig production hints (although there will be rather more pomp and circumstance this time around), some not-yet-publicly announced events in Los Angeles, and a final chat with Biden.

Xi’s trip comes amid a surge in US agricultural exports to China as that nation became America’s number one customer for farm exports last year with purchases of $20-billion, or 14% of all of its agricultural exports. China’s imports of US grains, including corn, wheat, barley, sorghum and soybeans, surged 77.8% to 695,063 bushels from a year earlier as of the beginning of February, according to the US department of agriculture. China is also the world’s largest importer of soybeans and cotton and analysts say it could become a major corn buyer in the near term as well.

Accordingly, there are hopes Xi’s visit will bring additional purchase agreements. The first US-China Agricultural Symposium, set for Thursday in Des Moines, will discuss food safety, food security and sustainable agriculture – but, depending on how things go – could also be a forum for the vigorous airing of ongoing trade disputes. As we noted before, the trip has some wildcards in it.

Because Iowa is America’s biggest corn-producing state (helping to feed all those pigs as well as humans), perhaps it may be useful to compare Xi’s upcoming Iowa visit with another Iowa vacation 52 years ago – Nikita Khrushchev’s trip to Coon Rapids for his hands-on consultations about hybrid corn production with Roswell Garst.

During his US visit, it turned out that Khrushchev was extremely interested to get to Coon Rapids – and Garst’s farm. The Soviets were desperate to improve grain production, and Garst had been in the Soviet Union touting hybrid corn seed before Khrushchev’s trip to the US. As a result, Garst had a good reputation with them already. Moreover, his farm was big enough that it was roughly equivalent in size to a standard Soviet collective farm.

This visit generated enormous publicity. At one point in the walk-through, the press of reporters grew so great Garst took to throwing corncobs at the media pack to drive them far enough back that Khrushchev could get a good look at things down on the farm.

On the fiftieth anniversary of that visit, farmer Garst’s granddaughter, Liz, recalled the timbre of the times. “My grandfather was called a communist, a commie sympathiser many times. [But] he was such a capitalist, he would sell to communists. He was trying to make money” by selling modern American agribusiness methods.

Liz Garst added “My grandfather was at the very cutting, leading edge of ag technology in the Midwest” at the time. Garst added “Khrushchev made the first approach. He told the world press he wanted the Soviet Union to have an Iowa corn belt,” so the Garst family invited Khrushchev to tour their Coon Rapids farm. The state department was horrified. “Our government was into building nuclear bombs and preparing for the war. It was thought that any friendly overture might be unpatriotic.”

And so it was that on 23 September 1959, the Soviet delegation drove 100km from Des Moines to Coon Rapids, together with a 600-person contingent of international and US media. And lining the road were units of the state’s national guard, set up with machine gun positions, although “none of the machine guns had bullets in them. There was a little bit of worry that the national guardsmen might try to shoot him, there was such anti-communism in this country,” recalls Roswell Garst’s granddaughter.

She adds that her grandfather was trying to be a good host, he was “trying to make money, but he also believed that hungry people are dangerous people.” Perhaps those very productive pig farmers outside Muscatine will be ready to make a deal this time around as well – only this time with the fullest possible encouragement of the US government. And no national guard. DM

For more, read:

  • Obama and Xi may make unhappy Valentines on Reuters.
  • In Charged Moment, China’s Political Heir Tries Introducing Himself to U.S. in the New York Times.
  • US Officials Outline Broad Agenda for Xi Jinping Visit at the VOA news site.
  • Obama, Chinese Vice President to Meet at White House at the VOA news site
  • China Says Xi Jinping Visit to U.S. Won’t Alter Policy on Yuan in Business Week.
  • Biden pledges to press Xi on Chinese human rights on Foreign Policy.
  • US, China set farm discusson for Xi visit to Iowa on Reuters
  • Chinese vice-president faces balancing act at the Financial Times.
  • China: Rise of Asia signals greater balance at Chinawatch in the Washington Post (quoting the official news agency, Xinhua).
  • Xi’s visit to boost Sino-US relations at the People’s Daily news site.
  • Iowa Family Recalls 1959 Khrushchev Visit at the KCCI TV site.
  • 50th Anniversary Of Khrushchev’s Visit To Iowa Is Celebrated on Farm

Photo:Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will meet tomorrow. REUTERS.


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