Xi Jinping Burnishes Foreign Policy Credentials Despite Lack of Achievement At U.S. Summit

Presidents Xi and Obama shake hands during Xi's summit visit to the U.S. (Source: Xinhua)

Despite a lack of concrete achievements in his summit with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping has accomplished a more important goal for his domestic audience—burnishing his image as a statesman. At a time when ordinary Chinese are bracing for a possible slide in the country’s GDP growth rate—and questioning the Xi team’s economic management skills—the Fifth-Generation leader seems ready to divert the attention of the disenchanted public toward the foreign policy arena. And while American media has cast doubt on the results of the Obama-Xi summit, Communist Party mouthpieces as well as government-affiliated experts in China have given an effusive appraisal of Xi’s first official trip to the United States.

The build-up of Xi’s image as a charismatic, globetrotting statesman began even before he left Beijing. A special cartoon strip run by Xinhua exulted in the trip, using a popular diminutive bestowed by Chinese netizens: “Xi Dada is mighty and powerful,” it said. “[You are] the pride and hope of Chinese people. Go, Xi Dada!” (South China Morning Post, September 26; Xinhua, September 22). After the September 25 summit, Xinhua and CCTV reported that the Chinese and U.S. presidents had attained “a trove of important results.” A Xinhua commentary declared that “Xi’s U.S. tour ushers in new era of win-win cooperation.” Quoting Chinese foreign ministry officials, Xinhua said both leaders “agreed to continue the endeavor to build a new model of major-country relationship between China and the United States.” Statements issued by the U.S. government, however, made no reference to the phrase of “a new major-country relationship.” In another Xinhua article entitled “Asia-Pacific not China-U.S. wrestling ring,” commentators Sun Ruijun and Wang Haiqing argued that Xi and Obama’s “latest agreement to deepen dialogue on Asia-Pacific affairs is encouraging.” The deputy president of the Beijing-based Foreign Policy Institute, Wang Fan, sounded optimistic on the broader issue of “hegemonic transition”—a reference to the competition between the world’s sole superpower and the fast-rising semi-superpower. He pointed out that in light of Xi’s statement that China will not challenge the existing international order, “the xinjie (心结, psychological knot) between China and the U.S. has been dissolved.” Wang added that both sides had “reached a relatively high level of commonality” regarding mutual interests and responsibility on the world stage (CNTV.cn, September 26; Xinhua, September 26; Shanghaidaily.com, September 26; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], September 26).

Upon closer examination, however, both China and the U.S. have hardly achieved a meeting of the minds on flashpoints such as cyber-espionage and tension in the South China Sea. Xinhua quoted President Xi as saying both countries had “reached important consensus on the joint fight against cybercrimes.” Xi indicated at his joint press conference with Obama that both administrations “have agreed to step up investigation assistance and information sharing on cybercrime cases.” Yet, according to the Joint Statement issued by the two heads of state, the so-called consensus is limited to cyber-espionage against corporations. The document stated both states “agree that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.” There was no reference, however, to the much more serious issue of hacking perpetrated by governmental or military agencies (Xinhua, September 25; Whitehouse.gov, September 25).

In his press conference with Xi, Obama indirectly expressed misgivings as to whether the Chinese government would be willing or able to stop cyber-enabled theft of American commercial and technological secrets. President Obama said: “The question now is, are words followed by actions” adding that the U.S. government was ready to slap sanctions on Chinese individuals and companies that perpetrated such internet-related crimes. While Xi announced during the September 3 military parade in Beijing that the Chinese Military would demobilize 300,000 soldiers, there are reports that its cyberwarfare division would witness growth in both resources and numerical strength (Hong Kong Economic Journal, September 11; The Diplomat, April 3).

Both sides appeared to agree to disagree regarding Beijing’s power projection in the South China Sea, particularly reclamation work on several disputed islets in the Spratly Island Chain. After the summit, Obama said that the United States would “continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere international law allows.” This was a reference to U.S. surveillance aircraft and naval vessels operating close to the reclaimed islets. “I conveyed to President Xi our significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas, which makes it harder for countries in the region to resolve disagreements peacefully,” he added. Xi answered Obama’s complaint by reasserting China’s “right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty.” Using the Chinese name Nansha to refer to the Spratlys, the Chinese leader declared that “relevant construction activities that China is undertaking in the Nansha Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization” (CNR.cn, September 26; Phoenix TV, September 26).

The Chinese position on the South China Sea seems to have hardened. In a meeting with representatives of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), in Kuala Lumpur last August, Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that the Chinese had halted reclamation activities in the Spratlys to facilitate negotiations for a Code of Conduct with other claimants to the disputed islets. However, satellite pictures of the area indicated that Chinese authorities had continued reclamation work, likely with the goal of building at least three runways that could accommodate most types of Chinese jetfighters (Jakarta Post, September 16; Reuters, August 5).

Apart from substantial differences on geopolitical issues, the U.S. and China failed to cement a bilateral investment treaty. Nonetheless, Xi’s visit to Washington, in addition to his Seattle conference with the executives of top American companies, has provided a platform to the Chinese president to reassure the Western world that the Chinese economy was in a reasonably good shape.

“We are stepping up efforts to shift our growth model, make structural adjustment and place greater emphasis on developing an innovation and consumption-driven economy,” Xi told business leaders in Seattle (Xinhua, September 24). Beijing resorted to a host of executive fiats to defuse the stock market crisis in July and August, leading to speculation that market-oriented liberalization had been put on the back-burner (See China Brief, July 17). Xi insisted, however, that economic reform was on track. “China’s stock market has reached the phase of self-recovery and self-adjustment,” Xi said. He added that the Chinese government completed “80 major reform items” last year and that his administration “rolled out over 70 key reform programs” in the first half of this year, though Xi, who heads the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Leading Group on Finance and Economics—the nation’s highest economic decision-making body—did not specify what the reform measures were. (CNTV.cn, September 27; Xinhua, September 24).

The Chinese president also demonstrated China’s role as a responsible stakeholder in the global community by multiple acts of generosity. On the climate change issue, the Xi team indicated that China would, in 2017, start a “cap and trade” system to curtail the Chinese industry’s carbon footprint. Beijing also announced a donation of $3 billion to poor countries to help them develop technologies to cut fossil fuel emissions and to tackle climate change–related problems. Peking University Professor Zhang Haibin said Xi’s act of magnanimity would help boost China’s global status. Zhang argued that “offering such a big amount for climate change] is an eye-catching move on an issue that the entire world is watching and will benefit from” (People’s Daily Online, September 27; South China Morning Post, September 26). Speaking at the United Nations after his U.S. tour, Xi pledged $2 billion for “South-South cooperation,” mainly helping developing countries in areas including agriculture, social welfare and sustainable development. The Chinese leader also donated $10 million to UN projects in the areas of education, job training and health care for women (CCTV News, September 27; VOA, September 26).

If there are any major disappointment for Xi during his American tour, the shortfall has hardly been mentioned by the Western, let alone the Chinese, media. The Xi delegation failed to persuade U.S. authorities to return a host of fugitives to China, particularly Ling Wancheng, China’s most wanted man. Ling is the younger brother of Ling Jihua, who was formally arrested last July for alleged crimes including corruption and abuse of power. A former director of the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee, Ling had been former president Hu Jintao’s right-hand man. The younger Ling is believed to have in his position a volume of classified documents that, if exposed, could embarrass President Xi and other CCP leaders (People’s Daily Online, August 5; News.youth.cn, August 5; Ming Pao, July 23). While Xi and Obama’s joint statement cited enhanced cooperation in the area of law enforcement and anti-graft operations, it is evident that Washington has been less than forthcoming with politically sensitive cases. This is despite the fact that, as an apparent gesture of good will, in mid-September Washington approved the repatriation of banker-embezzler Kuang Wanfang and corrupt businessman Yang Jinjun, both of whom had been in hiding in the U.S. since 2001 (China News Service, September 25; Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection Website, September 19).

While waxing eloquent on his administration’s campaign to take out “both flies and tigers” among corrupt officials, Xi told his American audience that the anti-graft operations had nothing to do with power struggle within the CCP. “There is no House of Cards [in China],” the President contended. Xi’s vendetta against Ling, however, has a lot to do with the latter’s connection with the ousted former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, who was one of Xi’s most bitter foes. Equally significant is Ling’s role as a fixer for the Communist Youth League Faction (CYLF) headed by ex-president Hu, which is still one of the biggest cliques in the party. Xi’s incrimination of Ling is seen as a means to intimidate other senior CYLF members (Radio Free Asia, September 1; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], July 31) The fact that the Xi leadership is pulling out all the stops to arrest Ling Wancheng—and to neutralize the bundles of “state secrets” in his possession—has thrown into sharp relief the deep contradictions in Chinese politics. And despite Xi’s apparent success in temporarily diverting the attention of his disgruntled countrymen to his perceived acts of statesmanship in the U.S. and the UN, the reputation of the Chinese president as well as of the China model could remain as tenuous.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?,” which is available for purchase now.