China’s leader in waiting sticks to the script on US trip
Feb 16, 2012
WASHINGTON // For Americans looking at the US visit of China’s likely future leader for a clue about where relations between the two nations might be headed, the signal has been clear: no change in substance, but perhaps a change in style.The Chinese vice president Xi Jinping toed the line set by the man he is to succeed as Communist Party chief in the autumn, Hu Jintao, who made a grand US state visit a year ago.
Mr Xi, who is expected to become president next year, made clear that China wants a deeper relationship with the US and even welcomes its engagement in the Asia-Pacific, as long as it respects China’s interests and concerns in its own neighborhood.
“It was a scripted trip without surprises,” said Jeff Bader, East Asia policy director during the first two years of the Obama administration.
“He obviously wasn’t here to make policy, or make decisions or alter positions on issues. He is not the No 1 yet and he doesn’t want to prejudice his chances of being No 1.”
But while Mr Xi, 58, has said little new – and did little to narrow the gaping differences that exist between the US and China on issues such as human rights – he made a conscious effort to appear less remote than the stiff and aloof Mr Hu.
“He’s more interactive than past Chinese leaders.He looks you in the eye, and you feel he’s conversing with you,” said Mr Bader, who spoke briefly with Mr Xi on Wednesday.
Mindful that Mr Xi likely will lead China for the next decade, Washington pulled out the stops to make him feel welcome.
He held a long meeting with President Barack Obama and received a 19-gun salute at the Pentagon – unprecedented for a visiting vice president.
John Park, an expert on East Asia and research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, said Mr Xi will face many internal challenges when he takes the helm in China and a change in leadership style won’t necessarily mean a new chapter in US-China relations.
“There’s been a lot of reading into the fact he spent some time in Iowa. Maybe that was something of a formative experience,” Mr Park said. But he added that it does not mean Xi will be a reformer.