Chinese President Xi Jinping makes first state visit to D.C.

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Photo courtesy: U.S. State Department
Photo courtesy: U.S. State Department


WASHINGTON — President Xi Jinping of China had some competition during his state visit in late September. Much of the capital was busy trying to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis, and John Boehner’s resignation garnered most of the media’s attention.

But, while perhaps drowned out, Xi’s visit was not muted. From Seattle to the nation’s capital, the Chinese leader was wined, dined and warmly welcomed. Or, at least that’s how the story was reported by Chinese media back in Beijing. Tellingly, papal fever in Washington was not as widely covered, and Xi timed his arrival in the capital to occur just after Pope Francis’ departure.

These contrasts in media coverage may illuminate differences in perceptions of the current US-China relationship. For China, Xi’s state visit further enunciates China’s rise in international prestige. This kind of stature-building is important for a leader who currently presides over an ailing economy.

By comparison, western news media kept reiterating the need for the two leaders to build trust in order to resolve everpresent challenges in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Xi’s arguably more muscular foreign policy stance can be alarming to China watchers in light of China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors and recent cyber-espionage.

It’s unclear how much progress was made on these fronts during Xi’s exchanges with President Obama last week. In a joint-statement on Friday morning, amid the pomp and circumstance of a 21-gun salute, the two leaders held a joint-press conference where Obama clarified that neither government “will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of of intellectual property.” Xi devoted more of his airtime to the South China Sea issue, topics Obama said had been tabled, noting that “China has the right to uphold its “territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interest.”

To be fair, solutions to such challenges are not found overnight, and the Obama administration should be applauded for its consistent engagement with China. In the climate sphere, the two leaders announced China’s new cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, building off of last year’s climate commitments. This kind of consensus sets important precedent prior to the 2015 UNFCCC in Paris. Additionally, people-to-people exchange will continue to grow. President Obama announced a “1 Million Strong” campaign, while President Xi declared 2016 to be the “year of tourism for China and the United States.” These cultural exchange developments enjoy good timing in light of the two leaders’ announcements last year to ease visa registrations for business and travel.

In his Sinocism newsletter last week, Bill Bishop, a noted China watcher and graduate of the SAIS China Studies program, bemoaned news media and op-eds “talking about the need for trust in the US-China relationship.” Discussions on contemporary China are never short on inflated perceptions, and it’s tempting to characterize the US-China relationship as fraught with tension and distrust. While Bishop may have a point, it’s may be more productive to focus on those areas where the US and China can find common ground. Trust is a bridge that must be built slowly.

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