Can Xi Jinping offer enough on his state visit to mend the rift in Sino-US relations?
Minxin Pei says while the stakes of Xi's visit to the US are high, amid fears of a new cold war, what counts is whether policies that frustrate relations in the first place will change
As President Xi Jinping begins his trip to the US, most observers are looking ahead to his meeting with President Barack Obama. Can the summit reverse the downward spiral in relations that began with Xi's accession to power in 2013?
Few dispute that the world's most important bilateral relationship is in deep trouble. From the US perspective, China's reckless behaviour in the South China Sea, unrestrained cyberattacks against American targets, protectionist economic policies, and escalating political repression at home have demolished the belief that a globally integrated China would be a responsible and cooperative partner. Indeed, recent Chinese actions directly challenge vital American interests and core values.
Chinese leaders, for their part, view America's strategic "pivot to Asia" as a thinly veiled step to tighten its geopolitical containment of China. Moreover, they have become obsessed with US dominance in international finance and technology and America's ideological commitment to liberal democracy, which they regard as an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party.
The toxic mix of mutual mistrust and tit-for-tat behaviour has brought Sino-American ties to their lowest point since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. There is now widespread concern that the US and China may be headed for a new cold war.
For Xi, the stakes of his US trip could not be higher. To maintain his domestic image as a strong leader, he must stick to his nationalist rhetoric and policies. But he also needs to stabilise the all-important relationship. Judging by recent moves by China and the US, we can expect modest success in a few contentious areas. While such improvements will not change the relationship's adversarial dynamic, they may halt the deterioration, at least for now.
On the eve of the summit, both the US and China took positive, albeit symbolic, steps to demonstrate their goodwill and improve the diplomatic atmosphere. The US extradited a low-level Chinese official to face corruption charges. The Obama administration also decided not to announce sanctions against Chinese entities and individuals allegedly involved in cyberattacks on American companies and government agencies.
For its part, China released a human rights activist and dispatched a high-level delegation to the US to discuss cybersecurity. In fact, the two sides are reportedly negotiating a landmark deal that would prohibit cyberattacks against each other's vital infrastructure. An agreement on the issue could be the most important outcome of the summit.
For China, the biggest prize is a bilateral investment treaty. In practical terms, such a treaty would make it easier for Chinese entities to invest and operate in the US and increase American firms' access to Chinese markets.
Such a deal would be a near-term boon for Xi, because it would represent a vote of confidence by the US in China's struggling economy. But the prospects for a treaty are uncertain at best. Congress is deeply sceptical, and the US business community needs convincing. Both have been bitterly disappointed by China's mercantilist trading policies after its accession to the World Trade Organisation.
The South China Sea dispute may prove to be the toughest diplomatic nut to crack. China has staked its national prestige and its leadership's nationalist credentials on this issue, which means Xi is likely to rebuff US demands that China cease all activities seen as militarising its new artificial islands.
But the most politically sensitive topic is China's ongoing crackdown on civil liberties and rights. Facing enormous domestic pressure, Obama has announced that human rights will be on the summit agenda. But Xi is unlikely to make any concessions.
Ultimately, the key question is whether Xi will be able to offer enough to repair the damage done to Sino-US relations. What really matters is whether, after the summit, China takes concrete action that reflects a genuine shift from the policies that have fuelled the deterioration in bilateral ties.
Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Copyright: Project Syndicate