Following his Seattle stopover, Chinese President Xi Jinping will on Thursday make a landmark state visit to the White House before heading to New York for his first ever speech to the United Nations. The trip, billed as the most important U.S. visit by a Chinese leader in a generation, is drawing massive global attention, partly because of continuing concerns about the health of the Chinese economy.
However, the reasons for the international focus on the visit go well beyond that. Some 66 years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the country now has massive international prominence, and Xi enjoys growing stature and credibility as a world statesman.
Coming at a time of significant tension in bilateral relations, there is an extensive economic and security agenda for the summit meeting. Topics of discussion will include the outlook for the Chinese economy following the recent devaluations of the yuan; Asia-Pacific economic integration; regional security issues in Asia and beyond, including in the South China Sea; and alleged cyber attacks on U.S. interests by Beijing.
The financial side of the equation is particularly pressing. This summer’s stock market gyrations have only fuelled the uncertainty over the Chinese economy, which may this year experience its slowest growth in around a quarter of a century.
In addition to reassuring the world about China’s economic strength, Xi has a broader desire to use the trip to continue to pursue his ambition for a “new model of great power relations” with the United States. In the words of Xi, “both sides must accommodate each other’s core interests, avoid strategic miscalculation, and properly manage and control differences” to avoid the conflicts experienced by great powers of the past.
This is an audacious goal that still lacks, currently, any obvious definition beyond rhetoric. What is clear, however, is that Xi recognizes that China’s rising power needs to be underpinned by better international understanding and appreciation of the country. One of the consequences of Beijing’s continued path to international prominence, despite recent slower Chinese economic growth, has been a sea change in perceptions of the country.
Especially since the 2008 international financial crash, both political elites and the global public more broadly have begun to believe that Beijing has or is fast assuming superpower status, in some cases replacing Washington as the world’s leading superpower.
Beijing often welcomes foreign acknowledgement of China’s strength. However, this trend is not uniformly positive, because the country’s rising prominence has aroused anxiety in some countries, including currently in the United States.
Generally, U.S. and wider international opinion tends to be more favorable towards China’s rise when it is framed in terms of the country’s growing economic power. This is one reason why Xi began his trip in Seattle, Washington, which exports more goods to China than any other U.S. state.
However, Beijing’s ascendancy is viewed less favorably when seen through the prism of its increasing military prowess.
From Beijing’s vantage point, such foreign concerns reflect misperceptions over its intentions as a rising power. This perception of China as a emerging security threat is exacerbated by a broader deficit in China’s global soft power.
To be sure, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in recent years on foreign charm offensives and has achieved some significant successes, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which enhanced China’s image internationally. Nevertheless, the country’s soft power has not increased at the same pace as its hard power – like economic and military might.
If China is truly to transform its image, however, it will need to overcome many other issues that have prevented the world from warming more to the country. Perhaps the most difficult issue is the significant gap between China’s attractive culture, traditions and modern achievements, and some of the Communist regime’s actions.
Thus, the celebration of Chinese culture was one reason why the 2008 Olympics were such a success. However, much of these soft-power dividends were squandered soon afterwards, when Beijing clamped down in Tibet.
China’s image would also benefit from more public diplomacy to win foreign “hearts and minds” — such as using the country’s growing space travel capabilities for high-profile international cooperation projects.
Xi’s challenges are vast; he will need more than one state visit to overcome them. Enhancing China’s reputation in the United States is a longer-term task that will require not only sustained diplomatic investment, but also significant domestic reform, for years to come.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Strategy and Diplomacy) at the London School of Economics. He is a former UK government special adviser.