Should Obama Cancel Xi’s Visit — Or Serve Him a Big Mac?

With the U.S.-China relationship on tenterhooks, experts say smart diplomacy is key.

U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting.
U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting.
U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the United States, scheduled to bring him to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 and 25, occurs amid rising tensions between China and the United States over currency valuation, human rights violations, alleged cyberattacks, and disputed maritime territories. Domestically, questions have arisen over how the administration of President Barack Obama should conduct the visit; presidential candidate and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker even advised that the administration should cancel the visit altogether (while another candidate suggested Obama cancel the state dinner and simply offer Xi a Big Mac). In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss the challenges that Xi's upcoming state visit presents.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States, scheduled to bring him to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 and 25, occurs amid rising tensions between China and the United States over currency valuation, human rights violations, alleged cyberattacks, and disputed maritime territories. Domestically, questions have arisen over how the administration of President Barack Obama should conduct the visit; presidential candidate and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker even advised that the administration should cancel the visit altogether (while another candidate suggested Obama cancel the state dinner and simply offer Xi a Big Mac). In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss the challenges that Xi’s upcoming state visit presents.

Evan Feigenbaum, vice chairman of the Paulson Institute:

It has long been presumed that economic integration can and will mitigate U.S.-China security competition. But to put it bluntly, this does not seem to be happening. So when Xi visits Washington this month, it is essential that the United States and China use his visit to confront, not tiptoe around, the underlying reasons for this.

The central problem in Asia today is the collision between economics and security. In “Economic Asia,” a dynamic group of countries, including China and the United States, trades, invests, and increasingly innovates together. This Asia is a prosperous $21 trillion juggernaut and, especially since the 2008 global financial crisis, has become the center of gravity in the world economy. But another Asia, “Security Asia,” has locked many of these same countries into an increasingly debilitating cycle of competition, arms buildups, and clashing security concepts. Instead of an “Asian century,” the region’s story resembles a “Tale of Two Asias,” with economics and security colliding, not running in parallel.

That is precisely the dynamic that confronts Xi and Obama. The United States and China have never been so economically integrated: Two-way trade has reached nearly $600 billion, and the total value of Chinese investments in the United States, once minuscule, has passed a staggering $54 billion, with (very) considerable room to grow. Yet despite that integration, security tensions have escalated apace.

At the simplest level, the problem involves choices and policies in the South China Sea, cyber-related tensions, and so on. But there are four deeper problems that exacerbate security tensions and, more strikingly, make coordination difficult even on issues where the two sides share interests.

First, Washington and Beijing have some clashing security concepts in Asia and, as a result, increasingly are talking past each other. In the South China Sea, for example, Beijing asserts maritime rights and interests, while Washington talks mostly about international norms, rules, and law. The two governments disagree, fundamentally, on how to interpret some important aspects of international law. Indeed, the United States perceives that China acts as if its interests trump international law.

Second, even when the two sides share interests, these are, too often, overly general in nature — “peace,” “stability,” “security,” “non-provocation,” and so on.

Third, the two sides often view one another’s policies as undermining their ostensibly shared interests. Take North Korea: some Americans argue that Chinese policies have shielded Pyongyang from the effects of the international sanctions Beijing voted for. Or look at Central Asia, where the two sides repeatedly have declared a shared commitment to “stability” and “security.” As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the region in 2006 and 2007, I heard Chinese officials argue ad infinitum that U.S. actions to promote political reform would undermine this shared interest and, ultimately, destabilize these countries.

Fourth, the United States and China have had trouble turning abstract common interests into concrete complementary policies because of countervailing interests that, too often, obstruct cooperation. In Afghanistan, for example, China certainly has shared America’s core interest for over a decade: a stable Afghan state that does not harbor, nurture, or export terrorism. But cooperation proved elusive for much of this period because Beijing never relished a path to victory that might yield a long-term NATO presence on China’s western border or require U.S. access agreements in Central Asia.

What does this mean for the Xi visit? For one, the United States and China need to thicken economic cooperation, and soon, especially around two-way investment. This will not overcome security competition, but at least it will help to anchor it in a strengthened framework. This would mean, for example, making real gains toward a serious Bilateral Investment Treaty and demonstrable progress on the cyber problem, which threatens to ride the relationship off the rails and, in collateral damage, undermine support for U.S.-China ties in corporate America.

Similarly, the United States and China badly need a track record of concrete successes in places where shared strategic interests exist but remain too abstract. This doesn’t require joint projects and actions, merely complementary ones. Take, for example, counternarcotics in Afghanistan and Central Asia: China works bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; the United States works mostly bilaterally through security assistance and capacity building. But Washington and Beijing don’t need joint efforts, just to coordinate areas of focus, direct their financial assistance at similar drugs-related goals, and build complementary capacity while maintaining separate efforts.

Ultimately, to deploy an American baseball metaphor, this means not always “swinging for the fences.” Often, the United States has sought security cooperation with China but failed. But working on more peripheral issues can give the two countries a chance to work over time toward more significant strategic issues. For instance, coordinating some international economic policies will likely prove easier than coordinating security policies. One example would be to encourage coordination between the international financial institutions and the new China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That would provide both sides some multilateral “cover,” and thus prove easier than coordinating bilaterally.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch:

Dialing down the pomp for Xi’s visit is appropriate. But it’s important for Obama and the White House to find ways — now, in advance of the summit — to dial up their support for independent voices from China.

Obama has described himself as a community organizer, as a civil rights activist, as a law professor — and it is precisely such people who have borne the brunt of the current Chinese leadership’s profound hostility to human rights, peaceful expression, and the rule of law. Between the end of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in June and the summit in September, the Chinese government has detained virtually all of the country’s 200-plus human rights lawyers, and two dozen remain detained or disappeared. Lest anyone think the government’s ire is reserved for controversial or critical individuals or organizations, in late August a journalist from Caijing — a highly regarded publication — was paraded on state television to “confess” that his reporting on possible stock market interventions had purportedly caused it to crash. Even groups that provide essential social pressure-lessening services, such as the anti-discrimination group Yirenping, have not been lauded but rather eviscerated by Beijing in recent months.

While some might have hoped that this leadership’s hardline posture would fade after its first months in power, actions such as these — alongside an ideological turn away from the universality of human rights and a proposed slew of laws that will gut already restricted liberties — demonstrate the opposite is true.

While the United States has expressed concern about these developments in multiple public and private forums with senior Chinese officials, and made global headlines for sheltering blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng in May 2012, the White House has failed to respond proportionately to the alarming deterioration of human rights. It has been reluctant to visibly and consistently align itself with China’s besieged activists, with the exceptions of eventually receiving the Dalai Lama and perfunctorily congratulating imprisoned critic Liu Xiaobo on his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize win.

It’s hard to understand Obama’s reticence. After all, his own “Stand With Civil Society” initiative suggests that such engagement is not only logical but desirable, and can be explained to an irate Chinese leadership as consistent with a global policy. U.S. officials have certainly visibly planted flags of support with critics and opposition movements around the world; one thinks of U.S. ambassador Victoria Nuland visiting protestors in Ukraine’s Maidan Square, for example. And let’s be clear: save for winning a civil war more than six decades ago, the Chinese Communist Party has no clear, or certainly no superior, claim to legitimacy over anyone else from China, including representatives of the human rights community. The party has never deigned to stand for election, and despite the “confidence” Chinese officials regularly trumpet, it still cannot bear even mild public criticism.

The White House will receive Xi. But in advance of that, President Obama and all other senior officials participating in the formal summit should devote one day to a comparable summit with representatives of China’s human rights community. There are now individuals in the United States who can speak fluently on issues ranging from political and legal reform to women’s rights, and from climate change to national security and countering terrorism. Such a gathering could address a number of issues the summit will focus on, and it should be afforded comparable pomp, including photo ops and a ceremonial dinner.

Will this irk Beijing? Of course. But not enough to make Xi stay home. Few efforts by this or other U.S. administrations have moved the needle much in pushing Beijing to change its ways on human rights. Giving greater recognition to — and engaging in dialogue with — good faith interlocutors from China might just be a badly needed change of tactics for all involved.

Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York:

Evan Feigenbaum makes some very relevant and helpful suggestions for what Presidents Obama and Xi need to address at their upcoming summit in Washington, D.C. “Even when the two sides share interests,” Feigenbaum notes, “These are, too often, overly general in nature — ‘peace,’ ‘stability,’ ‘security,’ ‘non-provocation,’ and so on.”

Here Feigenbaum is absolutely right. After all, the bitter reality of global politics is that nations rarely subordinate their own perceived national interests to any common purpose, unless they first identify a convergence between the two. So, unless the United States and China both uncover such a common interest, it is unlikely that September’s summit, or any other convocation for that matter, will produce very meaningful results. This is lamentable because the reality of our contemporary world is that, like it or not, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China matter to each other more than ever. Moreover, if the world is ever to reestablish a new 21st Century global order, these two Pacific nations will necessarily become the keystones of any such new arch.

Unfortunately, the two nations are divided not just by an ocean and the proximity of different continents, but by a yawning cultural and historical divide, and even wider political differences. While the United States of America is a new world nation steeped in enlightenment values with an irrepressible tendency to evangelize for liberal multiparty democracy, China is an ancient country steeped in traditional Asian/Confucian culture that was first overthrown by a Marxist–Leninist revolution, and then evolved into a hybrid experiment in authoritarian capitalism. But as dissimilar as these two countries and their polities are, they nonetheless now find themselves inescapably at the very center of the new global proposition. Simply put, the modern world will not be able function effectively without their mutual cooperation. In large measure, then, the evolution of the relationship between the United States and China will determine whether the quest for global stability in the 21st Century finds a new shape, or remains a chimera.

Xi’s investiture as Party General Secretary and President took place in 2012 and 2013. As his new tenure slowly revealed, while he continued to be committed to deeper economic reform, Xi showed virtually no interest in deepening political reform. Indeed, as the months of his rule continued, not only did he gather more power into his own hands than any leader since Mao, but he also began a significant tightening up on almost all aspects of Chinese political, cultural, media, academic, and NGO life. By mid-2015 it had become abundantly clear that his version of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” had very few remaining common chords with the liberal democratic world’s global agenda of promoting more democratic and open societies.

As more U.S. officials and opinion makers began to entertain the need for a substantially new and more forceful U.S. reaction, the U.S.-China relationship edged towards a dangerous point of inflection. Whether the new Chinese leadership fully realizes the dangerous consequences of their more belligerent and authoritarian policies both for their country, the U.S.-China relationship, and the world, is a question for which we outsiders have no clear answer. But the standoff between the two countries has created an increasingly sour, if not dangerous, relationship.

But, actually, an unexpected and quite promising new factor has arisen, one that could restabilize the core of the shaken U.S.-China relationship with a latter-day common interest and, if diplomacy on both sides is done deftly, usher the two nations into a more hopeful phase. This new factor is the threat of runaway greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, a concern that both Presidents Obama and Xi have begun to acknowledge as imperiling the future well-being of both of our nations and the world. Should the two countries actually succeed in coalescing around this critical global issue in a constructive way, not only might they help the United States and China come together in a common endeavor of enormous importance, but also help lead the entire international community out of this existential environmental impasse.

With both presidents having already jointly committed at last year’s APEC summit in Beijing to peaking their own nation’s carbon emissions growth by 2030, their upcoming Washington summit now presents an incomparable opportunity to put this challenge at the very center of the U.S.-China relation and build out from it. Success would give new grounds for hope that this great generational challenge might galvanize a more meaningful partnership between the two nations.

Of course, with so many new disagreements, points of friction and asymmetries between the values and political systems of the two nations, such a positive outcome is still far from guaranteed. The alternative for U.S.-China relations is bleak. Perhaps the most depressing possible eventuality would be ending up at the kind of dead-end in which the United States and Europe now find themselves with Putin’s Russia, a place where the world is beyond any hope of finding a “reset button.” But, since China is far more consequential to the United States and to the world than is Russia, and since relations have not yet reached such a nadir, there is still a margin of hope. It would be an enormous loss to let this critical relationship reach such a state of impasse without having made as Herculean an effort as possible to arrest the downward slide.

Robert Kapp, Senior Advisor to The China Program of The Carter Center and former President of the US-China Business Council:

President Obama’s November 2014 state visit to China, while brief, was notable for the very promising series of agreements the two leaders made, on issues ranging from climate change to the issuance of longer-term visas for citizens of each country visiting the other. These positive developments came as a surprise to much of the public, the media, and many China specialists, given the long list of divisive issues and tensions enveloping the United States and China. The agreements were reached through extensive, discreet negotiations among professionals in government service.

The intervening months, however, have witnessed new developments disheartening to many of us who have worked long and hard for productive and positive Sino-American relations. China has moved ahead with a raft of “security” measures, both on the civil society and legal fronts, in response to threats from “hostile Western forces” and “Western values,” in ways repellent to many American observers. Its incessant island-building in the South China Sea and its unceasing propaganda campaigns against Japan, in the context of its maximalist commemoration of the defeat of Japan in 1945, leave Americans with an unsettling impression of boastfulness and military cockiness. China’s economic slowdown, its much-publicized stock market volatility, and the recent change in its currency policy have all left their marks on traditional American economic optimism with respect to China. The lengthening anti-corruption campaign attests to the depths of China’s internal governance issues, and the ticking of the clock reveals that many of the regime’s vaunted “reform” policies have proceeded haltingly, if at all.

Now, on the brink of yet another U.S. presidential campaign season, China is once more becoming a throwaway line for hell-raising candidates on the stump. Just as American analysts try to determine the significance of flamboyant best-selling Chinese nationalist writers, many of them from the military, who offer a heady mixture of anti-foreignism and military bravado, Chinese observers from Xi on down will surely wonder how to interpret the raging insults and contemptuous sneers of various aspirants to White House authority as they careen through the great American metropolitan centers of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Chinese government preparations for state visits to the United States, I can note from experience, are meticulous and demanding, bent on ensuring that there will be no surprises, no spontaneity, no untoward moments to mar the flawless images of their leader’s progress through the nation that China simultaneously most respects and resents, envies and fears. Unlike the more private and informal “Sunnylands Summit” in California in 2013, Xi this time will get the full protocol treatment (hopefully without the gasp-inducing blunders that tainted former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit to Washington). Americans may roll their eyes at some of the stagey media overkill, but a state visit is a state visit, part of a significant and complicated relationship between global behemoths. Especially given that Obama has already been welcomed on a state visit to China, it is idle to think of this return visit as some sort of gift to a foreign potentate who has not earned the privilege. The president of the United States is not the Qianlong Emperor of China, who in 1793 sent King George’s first emissary packing with a condescending wave of the hand.

We may dismiss China’s famous formulation for U.S.-China relations, a “new type of major power relations” as manipulative cant, but, stilted phraseology aside, there is something to the idea. In fact, sooner or later each government must decide whether the other country is so significant that special weight must be accorded to that nation’s interests and concerns. The longer this basic decision is delayed, the greater the dangers of an uncontrolled slide into unnecessary confrontation.

For the United States, the answer to that question may well be “no.” The United States has fish to fry worldwide; in some senses, China is just another problem to deal with, and — at least in the short run — not as pressing a problem as other domestic and international issues. Furthermore, developments of recent months have given Americans reason to see that American concerns do not carry special weight with the Chinese government under its powerful and dominating leader, Xi; if anything, Americans might conclude, China has built a persistent antagonism toward American views into its core political strategy for the future.

For their part, the Chinese authorities regularly complain that their views on matters they deem vital are ignored or dismissed by the United States, and directly or indirectly make reference to America’s presumed campaign of political hostility and even subversion.

If the answer, then, to the question of whether these two countries have so much at stake with each other that their needs and desires require special consideration is “no,” the two countries must accept the reality that the future will consist increasingly of disharmony, disenchantment, discord, and disarray. Certainly many so-called “realists” in the United States argue for that.

If, on the other hand, the answer is “yes,” then the two leaders, in a perfect world, would set about mapping a pathway toward the deescalation of rising tensions across a whole menu of policy conflicts, economic and security frictions.

Twenty years ago, at a time of acute crisis between the United States and China, I mused in an article that the two nations might try to pursue a path of “reciprocal unilateralism,” according to which each country would, without indicating that it was acting at the demand of the other, unilaterally make an incremental change in its own behavior that comported with what it knew the other country desired. The other country, in turn, recognizing the meaning of the first country’s move, would respond with a unilateral action of its own, in a process that led to the phased build-down of tensions in vital areas of Sino-American engagement.

It would not require superhuman imagination for the two leaders and their governments to think in such terms now, when U.S.-China economic engagement is so gigantic and the magnitude of bilateral security issues has grown so much. To the already enunciated intentions on such matters as the Bilateral Investment Treaty, climate change, anti-terrorism cooperation, and so on,(all important areas of bilateral cooperation, by the way) a future leader’s meeting could provide the impetus for the first steps in a “reciprocal unilateralist” process that could unfold over many years. (See Lyle Goldstein’s provocative book, Meeting China Halfway, for one scholar’s notions of how that process could be structured.)

As a host nation, we ourselves need to get a grip, and receive the leader of the world’s most populous nation with confidence and dignity. Advancing American interests in a stable relationship with a China that continues to churn uncertainly at home while lurching toward a “China Dream” of greater global strength will remain a demanding, unending, laborious and politically fraught process. State visits and the extension of official courtesies are a necessary but not sufficient part of that process. Let there be neither obsequiousness nor casual condescension. Let us make our country’s best efforts in receiving Xi Jinping, making clear and living up to our defining values, and advance our most vital national interests — not all of which are military or even economic. We certainly should expect nothing less from the Chinese leader and his throng of attending officials.

Arthur Waldron, professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania:

The Xi visit should have been canceled, and so should the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing. By forcing the Chinese to focus on the real problems their actions are causing and ceasing at least for the time the charade of engagement, such an action would contribute to improvement in relations.

Rather than search pointlessly for understanding, win-win propositions, etc. — all of which the Chinese understand well and use against us — it is time to hammer them in private on rights and military behavior. They have to clean up their act. We need to make clear something we dare not: namely that sanctions that bite are the alternative. Fear of sanctions may get something. Sadly discussion is a dead end. After 1989, the enlightened faction disappeared from the party. These messages must be hard as nails, private and ambassadorial. They must not be all over the press.

It would have been far better to cancel than risk a slip. Abe should cancel quietly too, and the message conveyed privately that until they make some real changes, Beijing will be Minsk or Moscow in our policy. We must also insist on reciprocity — Perry Link, professor at University of California, Riverside who has been unable to enter China since the 1990s, gets a visa, and Xinhua operates under same rules our journalists do in China. This is nothing that an ambassador cannot convey. There is no need for a visit.

This is a good time to send a tougher message to China. Their run of good luck has unexpectedly ended. They are stumbling and want some symbolic foreign policy success — at no real cost to themselves. Their economy is headed south; the northeastern port city of Tianjin has seen horrific explosions; China’s foreign policy in Asia is making them a host of new enemies. Their theory of victory, that psychological factors would lead all to recognize their preponderance, has failed. Parades and naval reviews are fine. But really to go further they will have to shoot. If they shoot we get uncontrollable escalating conflict, the worst possible outcome — and they seem scarcely to have considered seriously.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Evan A. Feigenbaum is a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Sophie Richardson is China director at Human Rights Watch.

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

Twitter: <a href=" Waldron" target="_blank">@Arthur Waldron

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