WASHINGTON — Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrives in the United States on Monday for a high-profile visit where he'll be feted as if he were the president of China — the post he's expected to take next year.
Xi Jinping, 58, is slated to assume leadership of the Communist Party later this year, a final rung before ascending to the top of the political ladder in March 2013. And with China now firmly positioned as the world's second largest economy and closing fast, the relationship between the United States and China has evolved in the past decade to one that is more important than ever.
As such, the eyes of two countries will be on Xi (pronounced SHEE) this week as he tries to pass leadership tests on each side of the Pacific.
"The important thing for him is that he shows or increases the awareness that he can work with the America," said Albert Keidel, a China expert for the Atlantic Council and a graduate professor on the Chinese economy at Georgetown University. "He'll be doing that in his speeches here, and in his meeting with Obama."
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As important, said Keidel, the Obama administration hopes to forge a good relationship with Xi before the U.S. general election later this year where trade issues with China are likely to flare. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney vows a tougher line on China for alleged currency manipulation, and President Barack Obama has recently ratcheted up retaliatory efforts against alleged unfair trade practices.
China's ambassador to the United States, Zhang Yesui, said the same on Sunday in a meeting with Chinese reporters.
"The year of US presidential election might cause turbulence to many issues including the Sino-US relationship. And Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to the US is expected to enhance communication, expand cooperation and ensure greater continuity to the close bilateral ties," said Zhang, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
In a conference call Friday with reporters, the top China expert on the White House National Security Council, Daniel R. Russel, called Xi's visit a chance to strengthen an increasingly complicated relationship that's at once competitive and cooperative.
"China is very much a global actor, and as a result, the relationship between the United States and China is increasingly engaged in addressing global challenges," said Russel, senior director for Asian affairs. "And that points directly to I think the central aspect of our efforts, which is to find ways to cooperate on issues of mutual concern, bilateral, regional and international, because our cooperation has a direct impact not only on the United States and on China, but on the rest of the world."
Russel and other senior White House officials made it clear they're making an "investment" in the Chinese leader, who will have so much face time with administration officials that he'll all but take the president's children to school this week.
Xi begins Tuesday by meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, then cabinet officials before time with President Barack Obama. He'll have lunch at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then go to the Pentagon to visit with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, before wrapping up the day at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
On Wednesday, Xi travels to Iowa, where he visited in 1985 as a lower level government functionary and stayed with a family in the town of Muscatine. He'll spend time with Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who coincidentally was governor back then and met with Xi on the long-ago agriculture mission. The Chinese vice president will spend Friday in Los Angeles, where he'll meet up again with Biden and visit school children learning Chinese.
That Xi has been to the U.S. interior and is returning sparks hope that he'll be a more responsive Chinese leader. He's markedly more personable than China's current president, Hu Jintao, who has maintained open relations with both the Bush and Obama administrations but isn't viewed at home or abroad as a particularly warm man.
Who is Xi really? That's what U.S. leaders hope to learn this week. It's been two decades since China had a charismatic leader. The last, Deng Xiaoping, stepped aside in 1992. The Chinese leadership structure since has functioned more like a corporate boardroom, with the president as CEO who has to answer to a very engaged board of directors.
"I think he's worked his way up by making few mistakes ... it is a collaborative process, and he is the best positioned now to hold together the collaborative leadership in the consensus system that they have," said Keidel, who for many years was the Treasury Department's top expert on China.
White House officials consider the face time with Xi invaluable. He spent about 10 hours in public and private talks with Biden during an August visit to China, and a lot of alone time is planned for this week.
"In China, in part because of the amount of time they spent together and the informality, the conversations were just that: real conversations. Direct, interactive, broad-ranging," said Anthony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser. "They covered the waterfront in the relationship — economic trade issues, security, military, regional and global challenges.
Xi arrives during a complicated time in U.S.-China relations. U.S. exports to China, worth about $100 billion, are growing twice as fast as to anywhere else in the world. But full-year statistics released last week by the Commerce Department showed a U.S. trade deficit with China of $295.5 billion in 2011.
China's trade policies and controversial set-asides in government purchasing for indigenous, or domestically made, products have heightened tensions. In earlier years, U.S. business leaders promoted China even as human rights groups were highly critical about abuses and lack of democratic institutions. Now with their interests challenged, U.S. businesses are increasingly voicing complaints.
"So we certainly hear a much louder chorus of complaints from American companies about business with China, and that's been one of the inputs into our dialogue with China about leveling the playing field, dealing with indigenous innovation, strengthening intellectual property rights protection and living by international rules and norms," said Michael Froman, the president's deputy national security adviser.
From China's perspective, Xi is likely to raise concerns about U.S. monetary policy and the Federal Reserve's aggressive purchasing of bonds to stimulate the U.S. economy and thus the global economy. China fears this may eventually make it difficult to contain inflation around the globe when a worldwide recovery eventually gains steam.
China has also more aggressively pursued its own international interests, so there is great importance on this personal dialogue. President Obama has met 10 times with President Hu. The two powers are together on some big issues and apart on others. China has been supportive of U.S. efforts to thwart the nuclear ambitions of Iran, but recently joined Russia in exercising its veto vote on the UN Security Council when it came to punishing Syria for attacking its own people.
Human rights issues, particularly the rights of Tibetans, will be on the agenda, insisted Blinken and other administration officials, noting Biden raised these issues in public and private conversations in China last August.
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