Chinese state visits are always hard: A historical perspective

Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting the United States next week for his first state visit at a time of considerable turmoil in the relationship. Frictions over numerous issues—in particular Chinese activities in the South China Sea, accusations over cyberespionage, and resurgent concerns over human rights in China—have brought the relationship to what some analysts see as a tipping point, between a relationship that is predominantly cooperative to one that is primarily overt rivalry. Key constituencies in the United States—notably the business community that has traditionally been a pillar of the U.S.-China relationship, as well as nongovernmental organizations, academics, and students of the relationship—can no longer be counted upon to stand up against the relationship’s critics.

No visit is an easy visit

But people who see Xi’s visit as a uniquely perilous event in the history of the relationship, coming at a uniquely perilous time, ignore the history of previous visits by Chinese presidents in the last few decades.

  • When Jiang Zemin visited Washington for a state visit in 1997, it was the first time since the gunning down of protestors in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989 that a president had visited either capital. The media and op-ed pages denounced President Clinton for receiving Jiang, with calls for the visit to be cancelled if leading dissidents were not released from prison. The relationship was dogged by Chinese nuclear cooperation with Iran, recent Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait that had led to deployment of American aircraft carriers to the area, and charges that Bill Clinton’s campaign had received covert funding from the Chinese government. Human rights demonstrators in Lafayette Park kept Jiang awake all night during his visit.
  • Hu Jintao visited the United States in 2006, expecting that Washington would, as usual treat his trip as a state visit. Anxious over how such a visit would be perceived, the Bush administration squabbled with Beijing over that point for many months. The administration was reacting to conservative critics of China’s persecution of Christians, its pressuring Taiwan’s government to alter Taiwan’s policy toward the Mainland, and to China’s growing power. The result was a hybrid visit, which the Chinese characterized as a “state visit” but the Bush administration did not, with a 21-gun salute in the welcoming ceremony on the White House lawn but no state dinner. A series of gaffes tainted the welcoming ceremony, and President Bush felt compelled to apologize to Hu. The visit left bruised feelings in Beijing.
  • Fast forward to 2011, when Hu Jintao made his first state visit to the United States under President Barack Obama. Tensions had grown in 2010 over North Korea, the South China Sea, relations with Japan, perceived currency manipulation, and human rights, and it was only five weeks before the visit that the Chinese finally confirmed that Hu was coming. The conventional wisdom of analysts before the visit was that the timing was unfortunate and it would achieve little. But the visit went reasonably well—in part because expectations were set appropriately low.

So one should be skeptical that a visit by a Chinese president comes at a uniquely difficult time and that the stakes are critical. In fact, the nature of the U.S.-China relationship is such that visits to Washington always seem to come at uniquely difficult times. Another common characteristic is that the Chinese come hoping for a smooth visit with high protocol, minimal substance, and no disagreements. The American side, meanwhile, argues that without major steps to address (our) grievances, the relationship will be set back and the visit will be a failure. That has been the subtext of this Xi visit as well.

In fact, the nature of the U.S.-China relationship is such that visits to Washington always seem to come at uniquely difficult times.

Which is not to say that the visit in fact comes at a propitious time. The Chinese are anxious about the spotlight shining on some of its actions, while Americans interested in a stable relationship fear that a visit highlighting differences will feed into the 2016 presidential campaign and further complicate management of this critically important relationship. These are reasonable fears.

Managing expectations

So what can reasonably be accomplished during the visit? 

The most important thing the two sides could do would be to send reassuring signals to the global community, and specifically to financial markets. In the wake of recent market turbulence that began with a steep drop on the Shanghai stock exchange, the leaders should demonstrate that they recognize and welcome the interdependence of our economies and that they are not descending into a relationship of pure rivalry. They should stress that our mutual interest lies in avoiding unnecessary wild market swings and that we have a joint interest in the growth of both our economies, as well as the success of China’s economic reform program and increased openness to American business and products. 

The Obama administration and the Chinese seem to be tentatively moving toward unveiling a possible high-level dialogue to address cyberhacking (as evidenced by a surprise visit to Washington in early September by China’s top law enforcement official and subsequent leaks that Chinese companies would not be sanctioned before Xi’s arrival for cyber theft of intellectual property). Regardless, the cyber-espionage issue does not lend itself to a quick fix and is likely to bedevil the relationship for years to come. The two sides are likely to announce an agreement to establish communications between military aircraft in international airspace to prevent unplanned hostile encounters. There will be some incremental progress building on the major agreement last November between the two presidents on climate change. Not much should be expected to cool tensions in the South China Sea. 

The two presidents should have a serious strategic dialogue in private on the most important global issues that we face: the Iran nuclear program; counterterrorism in Iraq and Syria; Afghanistan; Russia and Ukraine; and cross-Taiwan Strait relations. They need clarity about how they each think about these issues, the possibilities of cooperation, and the risks of conflict. With Washington dealing with a Middle East marked by chaos and an Eastern Europe facing Russian belligerence, President Obama does not want to see the U.S.-China relationship develop into a third front of tensions. A sharing of strategic perspectives that reveals a common or at least parallel approach to maintaining global stability should help prevent that.