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Government & Politics

China Flexes Muscle With State Visit

What Xi Jinping's first visit to Washington means.

Michael Swartz · Sep. 25, 2015

In part two of a particularly whirlwind week in Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived for his first visit to Washington since becoming president in 2013. And Barack Obama is welcoming Xi for an official state visit at a time when that’s not the signal the U.S. ought to be sending to China. Let’s just say that, in terms of our interests, the Asia pivot isn’t quite working as Obama billed it.

Yet while some observers gush over the prospect of a formal state dinner for Xi that features Maine lobster, others fret about how Xi is eating our lunch. A series of ceremonies usually reserved for close allies is the reward for the president of a nation that’s recently been accused of hacking sensitive data (a hack that we found out the day of Xi’s arrival netted 5.6 million fingerprints), manipulating its currency and being more aggressive with its military. China has also detained American businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis, who’s been held since March on accusation of “spying.”

And that’s on top of Xi ushering in what some consider the worst religious repression since Mao’s “cultural revolution.”

Obama, though, seems oblivious to the problems between our nations, and in some part it could be because he gets along well with the Chinese leader. Recall that Obama’s visit to China last November led to the framework of a greenhouse gas pact in which we begin working to reduce greenhouse emissions now while China starts in 15 years. It was finalized during a five-hour private dinner between the two men.

Fighting climate change is always a work in progress with Obama, and the two nations plan to announce China’s new cap-and-trade plan to crack down on emissions today, though the plan evidently won’t alter last year’s emissions targets. An agreement with China on the issue is a key piece of Obama’s climate change agenda ahead of the Paris climate summit in December.

China also has a tremendous amount of pull in the business world. When China wanted captains of Silicon Valley industry to meet while Xi was in Seattle, these businessmen were “absolutely expected to be there.” So a meeting intended originally for mid-level executives became the “summoning” to kiss Xi’s ring. When China’s centrally controlled economy makes an offer, companies find it hard to refuse. Obama didn’t have that same effect back in February, when he attempted to sell the industry on cybersecurity and privacy in the computer world.

Deserved or not, China will get its state dinner and Xi can get the propaganda points back home, since it’s a sure bet Chinese state-controlled media is all over this visit. One thing is sure: Xi is pressing his advantage during Obama’s remaining months in office. He knows that a Republican administration would be a tad less accommodating.

Finally, it will be interesting to compare this to another upcoming visit from a head of state — that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Will our ally get the same welcome Xi did, or will he be snubbed as he was in the spring?

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