China’s VP, heir-apparent Xi Jinping, arrives for critical US visit

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

China's Vice President Xi Jinping arrives in Washington late Monday for a whirlwind visit to the White House, Pentagon, Iowa and Los Angeles. White House officials describe the visit as an opportunity to build relations with the man expected to become China's president next year.

"The trip is a very important way to learn more about him and continue the work we have been doing ... to broaden his understanding of the United States," Daniel Russel, President Obama's top Asia adviser in the National Security Council, told journalists in a White House call previewing the visit.

Xi's visit, from February 14-17, formally hosted by his American counterpart, Vice President Joe Biden, will include meetings with Biden and Obama at the White House; a rare visit for a senior Chinese official to the Pentagon (hosted by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta); a trip to Congress; and a conversation with American business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Xi will also visit the American heartland, traveling to two Iowa cities, Muscatine and Des Moines, to discuss agriculture issues at events hosted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Xi will then travel to California, where he will be joined by Biden on a program with California educators, business and civic leaders hosted by Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and to discuss initiatives to expand educational exchanges with China.

But most important, the trip--coming forty years after President Nixon visited China--will include lots of face time for Biden and Xi to talk and further get to know each other, officials said.

"This visit is an investment in the future of the Chinese-American relationship," Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, told journalists on the call previewing the trip. On Biden's visit to Beijing and Chengdu China last August, hosted by Xi, the two vice presiden's spent some ten hours together, Blinken estimated. All that face time "allowed for real conversations that were direct, broad ranging, covering the waterfront"--security, trade, human rights issues, and more--Blinken said, adding, "We expect this visit in tenor, style and substance" to be similarly wide-ranging.

"In Asia, relationships matter," the NSC's Russel said. So Xi's visit continues the "relationship building with an official in China who seems destined to be a central figure in the Chinese political system for years to come... It allows him to see the United States anew for himself and hear what Americans are concerned about."

The kind of connection White House officials hope to nurture with Xi has been somewhat lacking with current Chinese President Hu Jintao, despite Hu's own pre-presidential 2002 tour of the United States, said Adam Segal, an Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Hu Jintao is so stiff, and clearly had no personal chemistry with U.S. leaders," Segal said in an interview.

Xi, 58, is already no stranger to the United States. His daughter and only child attends Harvard University. He himself famously visited Muscatine, Iowa (his current trip will be a repeat visit) in the 1980s when he was a provincial Chinese official trying to promote U.S.-Chinese agriculture ties.

The son of a Chinese Communist revolutionary general and war hero who was jailed for a time after a falling-out with Chairman Mao, Xi is described as a workaholic pragmatist with a reputation for clean living and (rare among Chinese party bosses) for his anti-corruption practices. Married to one of China's most famous singers, patriotic folk singer Peng Liyuan, Xi reportedly lived in a cave for almost seven years and did hard labor as a young man after his father's political troubles, and had to apply eight times before being accepted into the Chinese Communist Party.

China's vice president since 2008, Xi is expected to become general secretary of China's Communist Party this fall, and to formally succeed Hu Jintao as China's president next year. But the succession plan is not absolutely certain, officials caution.

"In fairness, Xi is not yet the number 1 official in China, .... and there's still a long runway before take-off ahead of him," Russel cautioned.

Nevertheless, Xi is certain to get an earful on the many points of contention in current U.S.-Chinese relations. Among them, Washington's contention that China artificially devalues its currency to benefit its exports, asserts unwarranted claims to control of the South China Sea, disregards U.S. intellectual property rights in availing itself of American business and governmental technology, and continues to have a dismal human rights record, including jailing writers, artists and political dissidents.

Still, Xi's reputation for pragmatism and anti-corruption have given some American China watchers hope that he could be a force for reform and improved American-Chinese relations on both security and business matters.

"There's still a debate among the experts about whether he can shape the [People's Liberation Army] or the PLA will shape him," former Bush White House Asia official Mike Green told journalists at a Center for Strategic and International Studies briefing last week. "He was party boss in Fujian, and so there's some speculation that on maritime issues and Southeast Asia and Taiwan, he might be more agile, more flexible."

"But there's a counter-argument, that he'll actually be much more clever at advancing China's maritime demands," Green added.

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