The president of China, Xi Jinping, arrives in Washington tomorrow for a “state visit.”
It is certainly appropriate for President Obama to meet with Xi in order to manage the differences between the U.S. and China and to explore areas of cooperation. There is too much at stake in a relationship between the world’s two largest economies, and we have too many potentially dangerous disagreements, not to be talking with each other.
But a lavish “state visit” is not the way to accomplish American policy goals.
Conflicting American and Chinese Interests
In addition to the massive hack on the Office of Personnel Management revealed this summer, China has continued its aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas and has intensified its crack-down on civil and political rights at home.
From an American perspective, effectively addressing these problem areas ought to be the aim of the visit. The Chinese, however, have different goals in mind. For the Chinese, the visit itself is the message.
The celebration of U.S.-China relations in Washington will send a powerful message back to Beijing and to other Asian capitals that the Obama administration is actually pleased with where relations are headed, despite the obvious slights to American interests.
In fact, the trip is already being spun by Chinese officials as supporting Xi’s policy of building a “new model of major country relations,” a Chinese policy formulation that may carry more baggage than the Obama administration first assumed.
In short, the state visit will help Xi achieve his policy ends; it will not do much for the U.S.
What Other Options Did the Obama Administration Have?
According to “United States Protocol: The Guide to Diplomatic Etiquette,” three types of visits were at the president’s disposal. A “state visit” of the sort Xi will receive includes “red carpets, military honor cordon, and colors extended to visitors upon their arrival at Andrews Air Force Base … a South Lawn full-honors arrival ceremony, including a twenty-one-gun salute, a meeting with the President, a state luncheon at the State Department, and a state dinner at the White House.”
An “official visit” is almost as good, mostly reserved for heads of government (prime ministers) as opposed to head of state like Xi. And a “working visit” (or “official working visit”) is shorn of all the associated honors, “usually for substantive talks.”
A “working visit” for Xi would have carried all the same low expectations for progress on American foreign policy goals, but it would have avoided the appearance that all is well in the relationship. It would have sent the clear signal to Asia that although we are prepared to talk through our many differences, the U.S. is determined to lead, not accommodate the Chinese lead and its associated bad behavior.