What Xi Wants From Washington

During his two days in Washington State, Chinese President Xi Jinping will take part in the usual array of business roundtables and CEO forums focused on strengthening trade between the two countries. Then he is going to a high school. Xi’s destination, Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, holds special symbolism for the Chinese leader, who arrived ...


During his two days in Washington State, Chinese President Xi Jinping will take part in the usual array of business roundtables and CEO forums focused on strengthening trade between the two countries. Then he is going to a high school.

Xi’s destination, Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, holds special symbolism for the Chinese leader, who arrived in Seattle on Tuesday. He had been there once before: in 1993, when he was a 40-year-old low-level functionary, and his country, still suffering from sanctions imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, found itself the far weaker party in its bilateral negotiations with the United States.

Twenty-two years later, Lincoln High will meet a very different Xi, the head of a very different nation. Just like Xi has risen – steadily climbing the ranks to the top of the ruling Chinese Communist Party — so has China, whose gross domestic product was roughly 16 times bigger in 2014 than it was when Xi last visited Tacoma. Despite a month of tough news for the Chinese leader — including an embarrassing stock market crash, and a deadly explosion in the major port city of Tianjin that highlighted the party’s occasional mismanagement of its companies – Xi will meet with President Barack Obama later this week as an (almost) equal.

If this trip is about one thing, it’s about compromise: how do the United States and China navigate a relationship that is more intertwined but yet more complicated than ever before? Even the trip’s schedule demonstrates the necessity of yielding. Washington State is not only a good choice for Xi because it exports more to China than any other U.S. state: it’s also a U.S. innovation hub that doesn’t emphasize the tricky censorship issues that a visit to Silicon Valley would: Facebook, Google, and several other major tech companies headquartered there remain blocked in China.

Visiting Silicon Valley would have also required a delicate protocol dance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s arriving there on Sept. 26. The same spirit of necessary compromise will pervade Xi’s trip to Washington, D.C. — starting with the trip’s schedule: Xi doesn’t arrive until late in the day on Thursday, after the departure of Pope Francis, a wildly popular spiritual leader and the head of state of Vatican City, which doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Beijing.

So what does Xi want from the United States? And what’s he willing to give in return?

1. Corrupt Chinese Officials

Xi is waging China’s fiercest anti-corruption drive in decades, and he wants U.S. help: Beijing has asked Washington to repatriate Chinese officials accused of corruption who have fled to the United States. Don’t underestimate the importance of this request from China: Beijing fears that high-ranking corrupt officials in the United States might defect, and leak sensitive information about infighting at the top of the party.

Although the two countries lack an extradition treaty, Washington appears like it’s willing to cooperate: In late September, just days before Xi’s arrival, Washington handed back Yang Jinjun, a relatively small-time businessman who reportedly fled to the United States in 2001. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which repatriated Yang, told the Wall Street Journal that the timing had nothing to do with Xi’s visit.) “U.S. cooperation in repatriating corrupt Chinese officials, a high priority for China, would seem to be one of the easier problems to solve in that the U.S. doesn’t want to harbor criminals, provided that U.S. laws and legal procedures are followed,” Robert Kuhn, a former investment banker who has advised China’s leaders, told me.

In April, Beijing released a list of 100 names of economic fugitives, including Yang, that many people interpreted as a ‘most-wanted’ list. That’s misleading: the people whom Beijing desires most are those with damaging knowledge of elite Chinese politics. These could include people like Ling Wancheng — the brother of Ling Jihua, the recently arrested former top aide to President Hu Jintao — who was reportedly living in California. It’s possible that Ling could possess compromising information about Xi’s grip on power, and possible that he would be willing to share it in exchange for staying in the United States.

2. All Quiet on the Cyber Front

Just like Beijing wants the United States’ help in repatriating officials, Obama has been demanding that Beijing stop sanctioning cyberattacks emitting from China, many believed to be state-sponsored, which have caused U.S. corporations billions of dollars in losses. Washington has also expressed concern about breaches like the alleged Chinese hack into databases managed by the Office of Personnel Management, that exposed the personal data of millions of federal employees.

The two sides could strike a deal. Washington and China have nearly $600 billion per year in trade, tens of billions of dollars in investment, and “a stake in the other’s success,” Evan Feigenbaum, the vice chairman of the Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago, which promotes economic ties between the two countries, said by email. “That’s precisely why Beijing should worry about U.S. business souring on China. [And] cyberattacks are the biggest problem.”

With expectations high in Washington of some sort of public agreement on cyber, it would be surprising if Washington weren’t able to announce some sort of resolution. “In following China for over 25 years, I do not recall an issue more emotional for U.S. leadership than cyber,” Kuhn told me.  “I think China now understands this.” And perhaps, he added, there would be some “serious ‘horse-trading’” – a cyber ceasefire in exchange for the secret repatriation of Chinese officials.

3. Respect

The least tangible, this may be the compromise that Xi wants the most. Any indications Obama can give Xi that the two countries are near equals, both in their relationship and on the world stage, is almost certainly high on Xi’s list. For example, Xi loves to describe the Sino-US relationship as “a new type of great power relations,” — he has done so at least as recently as Sept. 17, when he reportedly stressed the importance of that phrase to a group of U.S. business executives. The phrase not only implies that the two countries can avoid conflict by mutual respect – ‘new’ referring to the idea that they will be able to avoid the historical near inevitability of rising powers going to war with declining powers – but also that the two countries are of equal weight as great powers.

Unsurprisingly, Obama is loathe to use this statement: it cuts against the idea of U.S. exceptionalism. On this area, perhaps more than the others, Xi and Obama may have to agree to disagree.



Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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