The Chinese president started his first state visit to the U.S. on Tuesday.
The anecdote speaks volumes about the level of mistrust between the world’s two superpowers: During his upcoming visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Barack Obama will not be staying at the legendary Waldorf Astoria, which has been the hotel of American presidents since 1947. Officially, the decision was made for “cost, space and security” reasons. The American press, on the other hand, has particularly evoked fears of espionage inside the Park Avenue palace, which was purchased in late 2014 by a Chinese insurance company.
On Tuesday, in a very tense Sino-American context, President Xi Jinping began his first state visit to the United States. Except for a possible convergence on climate change in the run-up to COP21, this bilateral summit will not allow for differences to be reconciled.* Beijing’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, cyberespionage, human rights — there is no lack of sensitive issues, added to which, in extremis, is the case of Sandy Phan-Gillis, an American businesswoman suspected of spying. With this in mind, some experts believe that the atmosphere between the two giants has not been so cold since the Tiananmen repressions in 1989. The White House, for that matter, also acknowledges that the Chinese president’s visit will be an opportunity to “address areas of disagreement constructively.”
Negotiation on Cyberattacks
Cybersecurity is the most sensitive issue. According to the FBI, Chinese cyberattacks against American companies increased by 53 percent in 2014. And the recent hacking of millions of American federal employees’ personal data, attributed to Chinese hackers, has aroused the fury of Washington. To increase the pressure, in late August, U.S. officials introduced the threat of sanctions against companies and individuals linked to these attacks. Negotiations were undertaken urgently. According to The New York Times, they could lead to a bilateral agreement under which each party would, at least, commit to not to launch cyberattacks against essential infrastructure of the other: power plants, banking systems, telephone networks, hospitals. However, industrial and commercial hacking would not be covered. “Cyber-espionage will probably undermine the relationship between the two countries for years,”** said Jeffrey Bader, a former adviser to Barack Obama on Asia, now at the Brookings Institution.
Another bone to pick is China’s geopolitical ambitions, considering itself equal to the U.S. and wanting Washington to treat it as such. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, Beijing has showed its strength, especially with regard to its Pacific Ocean neighbors. According to the Pentagon, colossal infilling works have enabled Beijing to create 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of artificial land on the disputed islets and reefs in the South China Sea. Three airstrips for military purposes are apparently under construction, despite warnings from Washington. “This move is no less a change to the territorial status quo than Vladimir Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea,” worries Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Diatribes of Republicans
Despite these high tensions, Xi Jinping will receive full honors in Washington, from a 21-gun salute greeting his arrival at the White House, to the pompous state dinner on Friday evening. Such splendor is not to the liking of Republicans, starting with the presidential candidates. Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Donald Trump have denounced this state visit, with Trump suggesting Xi Jinping be offered a McDonald’s hamburger rather than a formal dinner.
In the U.S., election campaigns are traditionally an opportunity for severe anti-Chinese diatribes, popular among voters. According to a recent poll, 54 percent of Americans — and 63 percent of Republicans — have an unfavorable view of China, compared to only 36 percent five years ago. Their main worry is the fact that Beijing is the world’s largest holder of U.S. debt — $1,240 billion. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents see it as a very serious problem, especially now, at a time when Chinese growth is declining and worrying the financial markets. In this uncertain context, Xi Jinping has decided to start his visit to the U.S. in Seattle, to meet with a number of top U.S. executives. His objective is to reassure and show that China remains a welcoming place for business. Last year, commercial trade between the two countries reached $592 billion.
Silence on the Human Rights?
Finally, as with any visit from a Chinese president, the issue of human rights raises its share of controversy. In Xi Jinping’s China, the repression of opponents, lawyers and journalists has hardened. According to Teng Biao, a lawyer exiled in the U.S., at least 2,000 human rights defenders have been detained or sentenced in China since 2012 — repression that many are asking Obama to denounce more firmly. “If President Obama had lived his life in China, as a Christian, a civil rights lawyer, a constitutional law professor, he would not be enjoying a grand fete with Xi Jinping. [He] most likely would be in prison, or worse,” said Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican.
Despite this criticism, above all the White House seems eager to avoid offending Beijing. Several weeks ago, China’s protocol officers were in Washington to finalize last details of the presidential visit. Among their demands were that protesters be kept far away from Xi Jinping, to avoid any controversial images for the Chinese state television — a request that Washington seems to have agreed to. Lafayette Square, the square in front of the White House where human rights activists were planning to protest, will be closed, officially for security reasons. This apparent concession to Beijing has brought the Obama administration two scathing editorials in the Washington Post. The first one appealed to have Lafayette Square kept open. The second one was ironical and about the difference in treatment between Xi Jinping and Pope Francis who, two days earlier, will be received at the White House in the presence of transgender activists and the first openly gay bishop, despite protests from the Vatican.
* Editor's Note: COP21 is a climate conference in Paris.
** Editor’s Note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.
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