Xi Jinping Comes to Washington
February 9, 2012
Vice President Joe Biden will host Vice President Xi Jinping of China on February 14–17. Xi, who is 58 years old, is the heir apparent to China’s top leader Hu Jintao. He will become secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this fall at the 18th Party Congress and will become China’s president in March 2013. If prior Chinese leadership transition practices are followed, Xi will assume the top military position as head of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 2014.
Q1: Who is Xi Jinping?
A1: Xi Jinping currently serves as China’s vice president, vice chairman of the CMC, and the top-ranking member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of China (CCP). He is also concurrently president of the Central Party School and is the sixth-ranked member of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. He has a daughter attending Harvard University. His wife is a famous singer in the People’s Liberation Army.
Along with many urban youths of his generation, Xi was sent to the countryside to do manual labor during the Cultural Revolution. After joining the CCP in 1974, he held posts in four Chinese provinces: Shaanxi, Hebei, Fujian, and Zhejiang. He graduated from Qinghua University with a degree in organic chemistry and subsequently earned a PhD in law. In his late 20s, Xi served as personal secretary to Minister of Defense Geng Biao, which provided connections with the military that many believe have endured. Over the course of his career, he established a reputation as being tough on crime and corruption. Foreign leaders and officials who have met Xi describe him as direct and self-confident, with good communication skills. After Vice President Biden visited China as Xi’s guest in August 2010, he said he was impressed with Xi’s “openness and candor.”
The son of a former Chinese leader, Xi is considered to be among China’s “princeling” politicians. The princelings are a subset within the “elite” faction of Chinese leadership, a group that tends to be more pragmatic, has business savvy, and draws support from China’s middle class. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a communist guerrilla leader in the revolution that swept the communists to power in 1949. He later served as vice premier under Mao Zedong and helped establish China’s first “special economic zone” in Shenzhen after Deng Xiaoping launched economic reforms.
Q2: Why is Xi Jinping visiting the United States, and what significance does the visit hold?
A2: Xi Jinping is following the example of Hu Jintao, who visited the United States in 2002 prior to becoming leader of the party and the state. The U.S.-China relationship remains of paramount importance for Beijing, and Xi will want to demonstrate that he is able to manage its complexity while also protecting Chinese interests. Washington shares an interest in a successful visit that lays the foundation for a good working relationship with Xi in the future. Symbolism and protocol are very important to the Chinese; Xi will likely meet with President Barack Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and leaders of the U.S. Congress, essentially following the playbook used for Hu’s visit a decade ago.
This will be the third time that Vice President Biden has met Xi Jinping, and they will continue their formal and informal dialogue. Establishing a rapport with China’s future leader and gaining insights into his vision of China’s future are key objectives. The Obama administration hopes the visit will promote progress on the broad range of economic, military, and political issues on the U.S.-China agenda. Discussion of economic and trade issues will be high on the list of U.S. priorities, including U.S. and Chinese roles in global economic rebalancing, expanding market access for U.S. companies, and intellectual property protection. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, North Korea’s leadership succession and nuclear weapons, the ongoing crisis in Syria, and the deteriorating human rights situation in China will be discussed. However, no major deliverables are anticipated; similar to Hu’s visit in 2002, the objective is to invest in the long-term relationship between Xi and the president. As the heir apparent, Xi cannot be expected to resolve issues prior to taking over the top spot.
The United States will explain to Xi the new Defense Strategic Guidelines, the administration’s strategy toward Asia, and its approach to China as part of that strategy. U.S. officials will likely highlight that the United States does not view China as an adversary and seeks to expand cooperation with China. The Obama administration hopes that Xi’s Pentagon visit will inject momentum into the sluggish U.S.-China military-to-military relationship. Xi will give public speeches during his visit, and the United States hopes he will discuss China’s military modernization, Chinese foreign and economic policies, and China’s human rights situation, all of which are sources of concern to the American people.
In addition to his visit to Washington, D.C., Xi will travel to Muscatine, Iowa, which he first visited in 1985 as head of an animal-feed delegation. On that visit, he toured farms, visited a Rotary Club, watched a baseball game, and spent two nights in the home of a Muscatine family. Terry Branstad, the current governor of Iowa who was also governor during Xi’s earlier visit, will serve as host for the return visit. Xi will also visit Los Angeles, California.
Q3: How much progress on bilateral economic issues can we expect to see during the Xi visit?
A3: As with all such high-level encounters, officials from both sides will work behind the scenes in the run-up to the visit to produce “deliverables,” including resolution of outstanding trade irritants. Among the issues reportedly under discussion are China’s restrictive film-distribution policies (on which Beijing lost a World Trade Organization case to Washington), forced technology transfer, and barriers to third-party automobile insurance. In a nod to U.S. agricultural export interests, the large Chinese delegation is expected to announce substantial purchases of soybeans in connection with Xi’s visit to Iowa. Other commercial deals may be signed during the Los Angeles stop, which will also feature a forum highlighting opportunities for Chinese investment in California.
However, the interest of both sides in emphasizing the “get-to-know-you” aspects of the visit, combined with the policy constraints on the Chinese leadership in a political transition year, means that there is unlikely to be significant progress on key items on the U.S. economic agenda, such as currency undervaluation and intellectual property theft—though Xi will undoubtedly get an earful about these issues in private meetings with congressional and business representatives. These issues will feature more prominently in the run-up to the Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in the spring and the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) later in the year.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Matthew Goodman holds the CSIS Simon Chair in Political Economy. And Michael J. Green holds the CSIS Japan Chair.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.