Xi expected to focus on the positive in US visit

President Xi Jinping waiting before meeting with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice in Beijing on Aug 28, 2015.
President Xi Jinping waiting before meeting with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice in Beijing on Aug 28, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

Economic issues, cyber security and military ties to top agenda at summit with Obama

Cyber security, military exchanges and economic issues are expected to top China's agenda when President Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to the United States starting today, even as he attempts to display China's rising global influence amid fears that its giant economy is faltering.

Experts say that with little ground likely to be gained on thorny issues such as the South China Sea, Mr Xi will want to focus on areas where US-China cooperation is possible and on managing differences so as to reverse the "negative policy environment" in the US.

"Currently, there is a lot of negativity towards China, so Mr Xi would want to change this dynamic... This would be a big-picture goal," said Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang.

One strategy might be to focus public attention on economic ties instead and to project a positive image of China through public diplomacy efforts. For instance, Mr Xi's visit to a high school in Tacoma, Washington state, is an attempt to generate goodwill. He visited the city in 1993 when he was party boss of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province.

"China also wants to show that US-China cooperation can still take place despite their differences, and trade and business areas are where progress can still happen," Renmin University foreign policy expert Jin Canrong said.

THE BIG PICTURE

Currently, there is a lot of negativity towards China so Mr Xi would want to change this dynamic... This would be a big-picture goal.

SINGAPORE-BASED ANALYST LI MINGJIANG, on Mr Xi seeking to focus on areas where US-China cooperation is possible

"Moreover, there are fears over the slowing Chinese economy and Mr Xi will want to assuage them and reiterate China's commitment to economic reform."

Chinese media have played up expectations of the visit, saying it could be of historical significance.

A report in the China Daily last month quoted analysts as saying Mr Xi's first state visit could prove as pivotal in changing the American people's perception of China's global role as that of former leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979.

Mr Deng's nine-day tour, which included meeting then-President Jimmy Carter, was the first by a Chinese leader after the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The director of the Carter Centre's China programme, Mr Liu Yawei, said "images of Deng kissing American children... in Washington moved many people, dissolving fears over a perceived communist threat".

Mr Xi's four-day state visit kicks off today in Seattle, where he will meet American executives. Experts say this highlights Beijing's efforts to engage business amid growing US complaints over access to the Chinese market.

Mr Xi will wrap up his visit in the US capital where he and President Barack Obama will hold summit talks on Friday. He then heads to New York to mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. Both men have met previously in the US, for an informal summit at the Sunnylands estate in California in June 2013.

Chinese officials have signalled that key topics during the state visit include trade and business ties, geopolitics, climate change, terrorism and cyber security. Taiwan, which will hold a crucial presidential election in January, will also be raised, officials say.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a forum last week that the bilateral investment treaty - an agreement on foreign investors and investments from both countries - is another area where both sides will try to "bridge differences and strive for new... progress".

Building trust and reducing misgivings - both sides have clashed on various issues such as human rights - will be another main aim of the visit, Mr Wang said.

Cyber security, in particular, is likely to be high on the list as no one wants this issue to further damage ties, Prof Li said.

"Compared to the South China Sea issue, which has many parties involved, it is easier to make progress on cyber security as it is a bilateral issue," he said.

Both nations could discuss rules and norms of cyber activity and possibly resume the regular cyber security talks that China suspended last year after the US charged five Chinese military officers with hacking US firms, Prof Li noted.

Prof Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said that the economy, especially global financial stability, the environment, cyber security, anti-corruption efforts, terrorism and even refugees are likely to be on the Chinese agenda. He also emphasised that military-to-military exchanges would be an important issue.

"Rules of engagement between the two militaries in international waters and air space, especially in the Asia-Pacific, are necessary to prevent conflict, given the tensions in the East China and South China seas," he said.

But the success of the summit is also politically important for Mr Xi as it will boost his leadership at home and help him continue a ferocious anti-corruption drive.

"A stable US-China relationship will also provide a stable environment for the plans Mr Xi wants to introduce during the fifth plenum in October," he said, referring to a key party meeting that is expected to discuss China's 13th five-year development plan.

"But to what extent this summit might impact the future of US-China relations remains to be seen, as President Obama will step down in less than two years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Xi expected to focus on the positive in US visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe