Stephen M. Walt

The overhyped visit of Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping has been to Washington, and is now traipsing across the country. Apart from traffic snarls in Washington and some feel-good stories from Iowa, I wonder how significant the visit was, or whether this sort of tete-a-tete matters as much as we think. I wasn’t present for any of the private discussions, of course, ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Xi Jinping has been to Washington, and is now traipsing across the country. Apart from traffic snarls in Washington and some feel-good stories from Iowa, I wonder how significant the visit was, or whether this sort of tete-a-tete matters as much as we think.

I wasn’t present for any of the private discussions, of course, and I have no idea what impression top U.S. officials took away from their exchanges. I know even less about what Xi or his entourage concluded from the exchanges. But here’s why I’m inclined to downplay the significance of the visit.

First, as a good realist, I think that the basic state of Sino-American relations will be driven more by balances of power and configurations of interest than by the personalities of individual leaders. As I’ve noted before, if China continues to grow more powerful, Bejing and Washington will view each other with an increasingly wary eye and are likely to find more issues about which to conflict. A serious security competition — especially in East Asia — will be likely (which does not mean that war is inevitable or even likely, by the way). Again assuming China’s continued ascent, I’m guessing this will occur no matter who is in power in each country.

The second reason I’m inclined to downplay this week’s meeting has to do with timing. Assuming Xi does make it to the top of the Chinese hierarchy, he will only be president for a maximum of ten years. A lot can happen during his tenure, but China’s overall power position isn’t going overtake America’s in that period and I believe the odds of a serious Sino-American quarrel will still be rather low while he is in office. The real test of Sino-American relations will still lie some distance into the future. As a result, what Xi’s individual qualities and likely preferences matter somewhat less. (To the extent that they do, I’d argue that what really matters is Xi’s ability to manage China’s economy and its internal politics, not his views on specific foreign policy issues).

Third, although China remains an authoritarian state, its president is not an absolutist ruler. Whatever Xi’s personal tendencies might be, he will be operating within a political system that will inevitably constrain what he’s able to do. Again, that’s not to say that his own character is irrelevant, only that its impact on actual policy will be warped, limited or shaped by other political forces.

The last reason why I’m inclined to discount the significance of this sort of visit is the fact that nobody can read minds. One can never be sure that you really know what someone else is thinking, especially in the sort of highly-scripted, read-your-talking-points type of sessions that predominate. You may be able to get a pretty good read on other leaders if you spend a lot of time with them (think of Reagan, Shultz and Gorbachev, Kissinger and Sadat, the interlocutors at Camp David in 1978, etc.) but that’s not necessarily certain if you’re dealing with someone who is a world-class dissimulator. So any impressions formed on this visit can only be provisional, which perforce lowers the value of the various exchanges.
Of course, the relative impact of individual, domestic, and international-structural causes is a long-running issue in the IR field (see under: level of analysis problem, or this classic work). I’m hardly going to resolve it in a single blog post. And to repeat: I’m not suggesting that leaders’ personalities and propensities don’t matter at all, or that they might not be extremely significant in certain circumstances. But on the whole, the rapt attention paid to high-profile visits of this sort is exaggerated, and especially right now. In other words, the future course of Sino-American relations is going to be determined primarily by enduring structural forces (or conceivably domestic interests), and not by whether Xi Jinping is smart, patient, risk-averse, impetuous, witty, cranky, brilliant, crafty, obtuse, ignorant, well-briefed, or whatever.

None of this is to argue against having top leaders in China and the United States get to know each other a bit better. And nothing will stop journalists (and bloggers!) from writing a lot of stories when they do explaining What It All Means. But in my case, I think it means less than you’ve been told up till now.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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