China’s Incoming Leader Meets President Obama: The Challenge of Shaping the Future

There is much importance in the visit of the Chinese Vice President and soon to be leader of China, Xi Jinping, to the White House.  The transition to a new generation in China has much significance since there is currently a debate in powerful circles in China as to the tack to take with the United States and the role that a “rising” China should take globally.

There are two main arguments being made among the Chinese elite. The first is that China should continue its economic and political reform efforts and that cooperation with the international community and an increase in China’s influence and soft power is the preferred option. The other, backed by some nationalists and military factions, is to push for a more aggressive stance towards America and seek a “rightful dominant” position in Asia. It views American increased focus on Asia, including increase in military presence, as a threat that needs response.

The second option, from any clear analysis, would lead to not only confrontation but also many negative responses from the Asian nations and from the other global powers.  It would threaten China’s own economy, which in large measure depends on trade and economic cooperation with a wide range of countries and institutions. China gains significantly from inward investment, education abroad of its students, and generally more open global engagement abroad, especially in its drive for modernization in science and technology. An aggressive stance could threaten all of this.

More fundamentally, the new leader and his colleagues need to make a choice that the best future for China in both the short and long run is to become a cooperative, positive force on the global stage.  This is the case that Obama must make to Xi and back it with indictments and a comprehensive strategy on the part of the U.S. to shape that outcome. It also needs other nations to approach China in the same hopefully concerted way. This is just the time and place to start that dialogue and to gage if it is one that the new leaders can embrace.

Unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles that stand in the way. First, Xi is still an unknown quantity.  Recent actions, in which he must have participated, have also brought into question which direction China will head. The recent veto with Russia of sanctions against Syria is just one example, as are its sometimes authoritarian actions against its own people, and also its “friendship” with such bad actors as the Sudan, Burma, and Iran. Its trade and financial policies are very protectionist and that issue must be addressed. Frankly, that will take time and we’re likely to see only gradual improvements given the balance of forces internal to China. We may see actions in both directions over the short term given the balance of forces at work in China. 

China has serious internal economic and political problems which are likely to be given priority by the new leadership, which is better educated than in the past. One decision that China needs to make is what, if any, role it wishes to play in getting the global economy back to a growth path. It could help via investment and support of the IMF, the World Bank, and even the European Central Bank’s efforts to stabilize the European economic crisis. All in China’s interest.

President Obama has taken a firm stand on China’s protectionist policies but he has also made dealing with China and Asia a very high priority – as he should. Sadly, he is somewhat defensive in response to the wrong-headed onslaught from the right wing Republicans running for his job and GOP leaders in Congress. There appears not to be a single thoughtful and comprehensive intelligent set of policies from this motley group.  Indeed, the GOP stance has already set Chinese observers on edge and encouraged the Chinese own right-wing elements to call for a more aggressive stance. Fortunately, Obama knows all this, which is more than can be said for his Republican opponents.

This meeting is important but it is only the first stage of engagement with the new Chinese leadership. We will see both ups and downs over the next decade they will be in power. Forces and events greater than either China or the U.S. that will call for cooperation will certainly intervene. There is need to discuss climate change and what we can do to assist China’s horrific health, human rights, and poverty problems.  Not least on that agenda will be North Korea, Taiwan, and the Afghanistan/Pakistan/India/Iraq joint conundrum. Syria is likely to be discussed and the Chinese will want to know America’s military intentions in Asia and we theirs.

There is plenty of room on both sides for creativity in shaping their relationship if they want to see a peaceful and productive rise of both sides to a “win-win” strategy and a stable and secure global environment. We will keep a close watch on developments on this site and welcome comments.

 By Harry C. Blaney III.

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