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Xi's US Visit 2015

Watching the signs: Can honesty and candour define Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the US?

David Shambaugh says given the real differences between China and the US on matters of national interest, expectations for any breakthrough during Xi's visit to Washington are decidedly modest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 9:26am

Click here to read the Chinese version of this article.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is paying an official state visit to the United States this week. Xi will visit Seattle and then proceed to the nation's capital before going on to New York for the UN's 70th anniversary session. This is Xi's seventh visit to the US, but his first state visit as China's leader. What should we expect?

Xi's visit comes at a time of heightened tensions in the Sino-American relationship. Strains have been increasingly evident since 2009, when President Barack Obama paid his first state visit to China, but they have intensified over the past year. Some seasoned observers have proclaimed the relationship to be at a "tipping point". While relations are not likely to go off a cliff, managing a primarily competitive and suspicious relationship is now the "new normal".

Tensions exist for real reasons - there is no magic wand that can be waved to reset the relationship to one of broad harmony. Those days are over (they ended in 1989). There are areas of mutual agreement and cooperation, to be sure, and the two sides are scrambling to highlight them at the summit - but their increasing differences will also be on full display when the two presidents meet on Thursday.

For observers of US-China relations around the world, what should we look out for during Xi's visit? The following 10 indicators will be telling:

1. What will be the overall tone of the summit?

It seems apparent that the two sides come into the summit with divergent expectations - which is a recipe for deepening mutual misperceptions and misunderstandings.

The American government is set to hold a very "businesslike" summit, trying to set an overall tone of seriousness and concern about the issues that trouble Washington and affect American national interests. Xi and his team had better come prepared to hear an earful from their American counterparts. The US will, in effect, tell the Chinese: your adverse actions in several areas are causing the following negative consequences for us and our allies and partners in Asia; if China seeks a positive and cooperative relationship with the US, it should do the following things.

If the Americans are fixated about substance, the Chinese are obsessed with symbols

The Americans will be the demandeurs. The American tone will probably be tough and stern. While appropriate and perhaps reflective of the exasperation felt in Washington following months of unsatisfactory quiet diplomacy, such an assertive stance is usually counterproductive in dealing with Chinese interlocutors - as it injures their sense of pride and conjures up deeply ingrained memories of past dealings with great powers. The Americans are banking, though, on being able to reach China's leader directly about these concerns and their underlying rationale, rather than having them deflected by second-level Chinese officials.

Chinese officials are aware that they may be walking into a hornet's nest, and that they cannot control the environment as they can when orchestrating summits in Beijing. This has them worried.

The Chinese side also comes into the summit with a very different set of expectations. If the Americans are fixated about substance, the Chinese are obsessed with symbols. This is always the case with high-level Chinese diplomacy, as summitry is - first and foremost - an opportunity to bolster the Chinese Communist Party's domestic legitimacy and the personal image of the party's leader domestically.

For the Chinese, getting the "optics" of diplomacy right is the primary goal. This has been evident in recent days as Chinese advance officials visit Washington reiterating, over and over, two words to their US government counterparts: the imperatives of ensuring "security and dignity" for Xi. The Chinese, rightfully, want to be received with all of the ceremony befitting the world's other great power. And they will receive it - a South Lawn honour guard reception with a 21-gun salute and a state dinner at the White House. The question is: if the Americans give the Chinese the symbolism they crave, will the Chinese reciprocate with the substance the Americans seek?

2. Will the American public pay any attention to Xi's visit?

Normally, state visits by foreign leaders barely break the bandwidth outside the Beltway in Washington, DC. This is even more likely to be the case this time, as Xi arrives right on the heels of a three-day visit by the ardently popular Pope Francis. American airwaves will be saturated by the pope's visit, with reduced attention span likely left for the Chinese president by the time he arrives.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about Xi Jinping’s US visit: itinerary, issues and delegation

3. How much time will the two presidents spend together?

Not that much. There will be a private dinner in the White House on Thursday evening. It may last two hours, and is scripted for a broad-ranging strategic discussion on the "state of the world". (Bear in mind, too, that Xi will be flying in from the west coast (Seattle) that day with a full day ahead on Friday.) The next morning, following the honour guard ceremony on the White House South Lawn, the two men will have less than an hour alone (with interpreters) in the Oval Office, followed by an hour-long enlarged meeting with aides in the Cabinet Room (with photographers present at the end). There will then be a joint press conference (at the insistence of the US side). They will interact again socially at the state dinner in the evening.

READ MORE: US Treasury secretary urges China to keep economic commitments

4. What are Xi's other activities?

Xi will spend two days in Washington state before proceeding to Washington, DC. He will visit the Boeing factory in Seattle and a high school in Tacoma, will participate in a meeting with American CEOs and another with internet industry executives, and give a major policy speech at a banquet co-sponsored by leading NGOs involved in US-China relations (count how many times Xi uses the mantra phrase "[building] a new type of major-country relations"). After his White House meetings, Xi will attend a luncheon of dignitaries and China specialists at the State Department hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice-President Joe Biden. Xi will then visit Capitol Hill for bipartisan meetings with congressional leaders in the afternoon.

READ MORE: President Xi Jinping’s trip to US city of Seattle highlights Washington state’s China ties

5. Will Xi be exposed to protests?

Yes, but this is the price he pays for refusing to stay in Blair House across the street from the White House (for fears that it is bugged). Xi's motorcade will have to travel several miles from the hotel where he is staying to the White House, and around Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill; demonstrators can be anticipated all along these routes, as well as near his hotel. Welcome to democracy, Mr Xi.

6. What can be expected to come out of the summit?

This can be divided into two parts: announcements at the end of the summit, and discussions inside the summit.

In terms of announcements, there will likely be a statement of further US-China cooperation on climate change, leading up to the UN conference in Paris in December. There may also be announcements of some new military confidence-building measures, a general statement about cybersecurity, progress towards a bilateral investment treaty, the need for global economic stability, and perhaps something on global security issues.

But those expecting major "deliverables" or a long list of areas of cooperation will be disappointed - this is reflective of the difficulties in the relationship at present and the US government desire not to sugar-coat the summit. The difficulties will be discussed behind closed doors. The American agenda primarily includes: Chinese cyber hacking (corporate and government); the deteriorating human rights environment and potentially damaging effects of China's draft NGO law; China's island-building and potential militarisation of the South China Sea; increasing impediments facing American businesses operating in China; and North Korea.

READ MORE: Xi Jinping and Barack Obama unlikely to crack thorniest issues during Washington summit

The American side will also gauge Xi's assessment of the Chinese economy and his commitment to further market liberalisation in the wake of the economic volatility this summer.

For their part, the Chinese agenda potentially includes: American cyber espionage against China; expanded opportunities for Chinese investments in the US; relaxation of restrictions of technology transfer to China; no more American arms sales to Taiwan; and repatriation of economic fugitives in the United States (an issue the US has tied to the Chinese government being willing to receive tens of thousands of deported Chinese who have overstayed their visas).

7. Will there be unexpected outcomes?

Watch to see if the anticipated tensions and blunt talk behind closed doors spills into the public domain. Obama will be typically gracious at the welcoming ceremony and state dinner, but watch both his personal demeanour and what he says at the joint press conference. See if Obama strikes a stern persona and tone in his opening statement, and listen if Xi departs from well-worn slogans and terminology in his response.

Then - in the one truly unscripted element of the summit - see how Xi responds to tough questions from the American press corps. Will he read his answers from prepared texts - or respond extemporaneously? Will he be defensive and caustic, as he was at the end of the press conference in Beijing last November, or relaxed and self-assured? Will he admit China has done anything wrong in its domestic or foreign policies (as his predecessor Hu Jintao hinted in his 2011 appearance in the same room)?

Watch to see if the two presidents get into a back-and-forth debate, as Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton did in 1997. In short, watch the body language of the two leaders as much as what they say, as it will reveal much about the discussions behind closed doors and the tensions in the relationship.

8. How will the summit be interpreted afterwards?

Watch the post-summit spins that each government - but particularly the Chinese side - puts on the summit subsequently. The US side is likely to leave the interpretation to the media and China watchers, as is customary in a democracy. The Chinese side, though, will provide predictable mantra about a "new type of major-country relations" (a phrase the American side refuses to use) with an emphasis on cooperation between the two major powers. It would be very unusual, although very welcome, if the Chinese media reported in a straightforward fashion about the American concerns, the differences between the two sides, and the contentious nature of the relationship today.

Keep your eye, too, on how other Asian nations interpret the summit - most of them are increasingly nervous about China's behaviour but, at the same time, do not wish to be caught in the middle of a clash between the two powers. When the elephants fight, the grass is trampled. Asia will not be stable if Sino-American relations are not stable.

9. Will this summit make or break the US-China relationship?

No. The relationship will go on, and the two presidents will continue to meet several times per year. Dialogue is continuous between the two governments. The relationship is not going to fall apart as a result of this summit, if the anticipated frictions are not resolved. That is what diplomacy is all about - to discuss and narrow differences while expanding areas of cooperation. The Sino-American relationship is too important to both sides and to the world for the two governments to allow it to unravel and descend in a more adversarial direction. That would amount to an abdication of leadership of a high degree. Yet, the relationship has to be based on more than ephemeral agreements or a desire to keep it from coming apart - real and tangible progress on tough and significant issues is called for.

This is going to continue to be difficult as their differences are broad, deep, and over issues of material national interests. Under these conditions, the best that can be hoped for is a relationship of "competitive coexistence", where the differences are managed effectively and not allowed to haemorrhage, while making mutual concessions to satisfy the other's important concerns.

10. What would constitute a successful summit?

A successful summit should be measured by honesty and a public recognition of the problems that divide the two sides. An unsuccessful summit would be if both sides paper over their differences and put on a good face for public consumption. Also unsuccessful would be if there was public acknowledgement of differences, but if the Chinese government blocked the Chinese public from hearing and knowing what the US concerns are.

Strong relationships must be based on honesty and forthrightness, not papering over differences so as to "save face" (as is customary in Chinese culture). Strong relationships are also built on listening to the other's concerns and responding in kind. We will thus only know six months from now whether the summit was successful, depending on actions taken (or not) subsequently.

David Shambaugh is professor and director of the China Policy Programme at George Washington University, and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, DC. His books include Tangled Titans: The United States and China