Who is Xi?

By Ernie Bower

Vice President Xi meeting with U.S. Speaker of the House Boehner. Source: Speaker Boehner’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Earlier this week, China’s vice president Xi Jinping arrived in Washington for a high level visit. To some, Xi—and China—mean everything to the United States. These observers view Asia’s risks and opportunities through the China prism. This narrow Sino-centric perspective is not strategic, however, nor is it practical. Understanding China, its rise, and what it wants to be is a core requirement for a successful and enduring U.S. approach to Asia, but it is not the whole game.

In fact, a balanced approach to Asia takes China into account but puts emphasis on other key relationships such as U.S. treaty allies in the region, strategic partners such as India and Singapore, and comprehensive partnerships such as with Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Vietnam.

Deepening ties across the Asia Pacific will take time, dedicated resources, and a retooling of U.S. foreign policy, national security, and military infrastructure. It will also require a new political script in the United States, one in which the leader of this country makes the case for Asia’s primary role in the United States’ economic and security future. America needs to begin to relate to Asia—not only politically from Washington, or financially from New York, or culturally from San Francisco and Los Angeles: it must connect at its center. Americans need leaders who can explain why Asia is fundamentally important to U.S. jobs, savings, economic growth, and security.

Xi may help. He has stronger ties to the U.S. than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. He is going to spend time in Iowa, right in Middle America. The best deliverable we can hope for from Xi’s trip is to set the foundation for the United States and China to begin to understand one another better. The United States and most of China’s neighbors have had cause recently to question China’s intentions and what path it will take. Over the last 20 years, its economic ascendance in Asia has been nothing short of breathtaking as it has moved from a more ideological country to a more confident and agile newly industrialized country with economic might to spare.

As China began to test its newfound economic power—it had become the largest trading partner of most Asia-Pacific countries between the late 1990s and 2011—it triggered real concern by asserting its sovereign interests in Northeast Asia, in the South China Sea, and along its common border with India. Countries, including the United States, realized that China might want to test its new power in ways inimical to neighboring states.

As I have argued on cogitASIA previously here and here, to manage this trend and convince China that it can grow, prosper, and answer existential questions such as how to manage its energy, food, and water security for the coming decades, the United States decided to join other Asia-Pacific countries in developing regional security and economic frameworks that will encourage China to use its seat at the table to make rules along with others, and to implement and live by those guidelines.

This is emphatically not a containment strategy, as many in the media have suggested. No strategic planner with a solid grounding in history, geopolitics, or economics would believe that containment is a viable or constructive approach when it comes to China. Vice President Xi likely understands this very well already, but his American hosts will have emphasized this point repeatedly during his visit.

The United States’ friends around Asia will review the visit closely. They do not want the United States and China to enter a period of confrontation or conflict. At the same time, they would also resist the concept of too close a U.S.-China relationship in which their needs and desires could be easily overlooked by a global condominium.

An elite core of U.S. policymakers understands this strategy and the importance of the nuanced messaging needed around Xi’s visit. Current U.S. policy is to speak very directly to the Chinese, say what is meant, and follow through. U.S. officials believe this approach will provide strategic clarity to the Chinese, who are trying to understand what the Americans want.

President Barack Obama’s proclaimed “pivot” back to Asia is widely misread in China,  particularly by economic nationalists and military hawks who interpret the move as an American surge designed to slash Chinese power at its base, contain the country’s growth, and put at risk its access to energy, food, and water. This is not the United States’ design, and President Obama and U.S. leaders need to make that clear to Vice President Xi potentially China’s leader for a decade.

At the same time, China must step forward and convince the United States that it does not intend to use its new economic power and growing military capabilities to force smaller neighbors to bend to new interpretations of sovereign territory. China must convince the rest of Asia and the world that it realizes it can become a major power by playing by rules that it makes along with the rest of the world. It must demonstrate that it can achieve its security goals—including long-term supplies of vital inputs—through a rules-based market system.

Xi’s visit means much to China and to the United States. Deepening mutual understanding, or at least setting a foundation for advancing that goal, will define success in this visit. That outcome is also very important to other countries in the Asia Pacific because enhanced understanding, transparency, and cooperation is the only road to a twenty-first century characterized by peace and prosperity.

Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.

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