Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What did President Xi’s Visit to America Accomplished?

This was first posted in Asia Times.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping has concluded his tour of America that began in Seattle, then the official State Visit at the White House in Washington and lastly at the United Nations in New York. What are we to takeaway from his historic visit?

He was greeted in Seattle with an exceptionally warm reception, not surprising since the state of Washington has been the foremost business friendly state with China. Xi in turn did not come empty handed but brought an order for 300 Boeing commercial jetliners, valued at $38 billion less whatever undisclosed discount.

Bringing a present to the host (jian mian li) is a common Chinese practice and tradition. Another of Xi’s activity that reflects the Chinese values of the person, lightly noted in the western media, was his visit to Lincoln High School in Tacoma.

Xi had been part of a delegation from the coastal city of Fuzhou that visited Tacoma and the school some 22 years ago. The two cities established sister city relations a year after that visit. His taking the time from his busy schedule to again visit the high school can’t be just for nostalgia sake but shows Xi as a sentimental leader with feelings.

He does not forget his past associations just as was the case when he visited the Iowa farm on his last U.S. visit. As a young rural official on his first visit to the U.S. some 30 years ago, Xi had stayed with a family on a farm in Muscatine Iowa.

Another interesting sidelight can be drawn from the group photo of the 30 CEOs that participated in a round table on the Internet in Seattle. There were 15 from each side of the Pacific, arrayed in three rows more or less by the market capitalization of the companies.

Somewhat unusual was the presence of Jerry Yang on the last row of the group photo. While identified as a founder of Yahoo, Jerry is currently not a CEO of any Internet company. But his Internet credentials were bolstered by his relationship with Jack Ma, Chairman of Alibaba.

When Ma’s company was young and privately held, Yahoo under Yang’s direction became a major equity stakeholder in the company.  Now Jerry sits on Jack’s board of directors and Jack stood on the front row in the group photo, two away from Xi. This may be another example of how long-term relationship counts in Chinese relations.

President Xi also did not come to the nation’s capital empty handed. Last November the surprise out of the Obama/Xi summit in Beijing was China’s commitment to join the U.S. in combating global warming and restrict emission of green house gases by 2030. The response from the western skeptics was to wait and see.

This time, Xi indicated that China was ready to stand with the U.S. by instituting a nation-wide cap and trade program by 2017 to limit CO2 emission from major industrial sources. Within one year, China has come up with a plan based on an American idea that Obama has not been able to get Congress to go along in more than four.

American presidential hopefuls should find China’s readiness to deliver on its commitment reassuring but probably wouldn’t because of deep-seated biases steeped into their heads.

Xi also pledged that China would minimize financing third world projects with high carbon emission. One observer noted, “China appears poised to enact the same climate change policy that Mr. Obama failed to move through Congress.” Someday, the world may look back and applaud the consequence of the bilateral agreement as the greatest contribution to the world’s future.

The summit also made other note worthy, though not necessarily breakthrough, progress in cyber security and repatriation of fugitives from China. In the cyber space, both countries agree on certain rules of the road and to communicate and consult with each other in the event of hack attacks. Much does lie in the details and how effectively both sides will work together rather than resort to public finger pointing.

The U.S. and China also agreed to cooperate on repatriating fugitives from China via periodic charter flights and to return ill-gotten gains. This could become a significant deterrent and cause corrupt officials to look elsewhere for safe havens overseas. American officials privately claimed that it has been the snail pace by the Chinese officials in providing the necessary documentation that impeded expediting repatriation in the past. Again, the devil will be in the implementation.

Arguably, Xi received that warmest reception at the United Nations. After his short speech pledging $2 billion for immediate deployment to alleviate the poorest, debt-ridden nations and to invest $12 billion by 2030 in the least developed regions, he was mobbed. Observers say as many as 30 other heads of state, also attending the 70th celebration of founding of UN, formed a queue to shake his hands—unprecedented to say the least.

Xi again reiterated as he has many times in the past including a recent interview with WSJ that China believes joint, universal and worldwide development as the key to avoid conflict and protect human rights by raising living standards. In the coming days, China will propose six 100-project sets to address problems of common worldwide interest. The six subject areas will consist of (1) poverty alleviation, (2) agriculture development, (3) global trade facilitation, (4) climate protection, (5) improving health care and (6) education.

As he had extended to other parts of the world, President Xi came to America offering cooperation and collaboration. His only stipulation, which China has raised since 2008 even before he became the leader, was that the U.S. treat China as a peer and strike up a new relations between “big countries” (da guo).

Judging from the body language and demeanor of the two leaders at the White House press conference, and despite the long informal meetings and after dinner strolls that have become customary, Obama and Xi showed no real personal rapport and warmth toward each other. Obama seems to have difficulty reconciling the U.S. position as the only hegemon with the need to accommodate China.

Perhaps because the U.K. has long ago given up any aspiration of being the world hegemon, George Osborne, their Chancellor of Exchequer, went to Beijing with unbridled enthusiasm for collaboration with China. Just as Xi was about to visit America, Osborne met with Premier Li Keqiang and signed 53 assorted agreements and memorandum of understandings on economic cooperation.

This was advanced work to tee up Xi’s state visit to Britain in October and ensure total success. Osborne said that his mission was to make clear that Britain wants to be China’s “best partner in the West.” Not that long ago, Britain was America’s best partner in the invasion of Iraq and shared in the disastrous consequences. Now Britain sees that it’s in their national interests to move away from the shadows of American foreign policy.

China is making friends around the world based on common economic interest and not on military alliances. While they have no wish to compete on arms, their recent air-to-air missile development with the capability comparable to the U.S. is another indication that they also won’t be intimidated. Hopefully a day will come when Washington will see more to gain from collaboration with China than competition.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

With the coming US China summit, Obama can make history

This version was written at the request of New America Media.

China’s president Xi Jinping will be visiting the U.S. later this month. He will be in Washington for his first formal state visit. A lot could be riding on this summit between President Obama and Xi, or not at all. Much will depend on how Obama chooses to orchestrate the proceedings.

China’s ambassador Cui Tiankai has been diligently speaking and writing about Xi’s visit as part of the effort to tee up the high profile event. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor even made a special trip to Beijing to meet with Xi as part of the preparation for the upcoming visit. Rice expressed hope for achieving a “milestone” in the bilateral relations as an outcome of the summit to come.

Obviously, both sides appreciate the importance of the summit with respect to the U.S. China relationship and the importance of the bilateral relations to ensuring a stable world.

The pomp surrounding the ceremonial state visit won’t likely remind anyone of the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics. However, the substance to come out of the Washington summit could be unprecedented and make history if Obama were up to making the necessary bold moves.

Since Obama began his presidency, his contribution to world peace and stability has, to put it mildly, fallen far short of what’s expected of a Nobel Peace prize recipient—a premature award at the beginning of his presidency that merely serves to remind us of his foreign policy stumbles. Destabilized Libya, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine and emergence of ISIS, along with Afghanistan and Iraq as festering canker sores, are all taking place under his watch.

Lately, based on his initiative to normalize relations with Cuba and strike a nuclear accord with Iran, Obama seems finally willing to take independent action over conventional thinking. It’s possible that leaving a more positive legacy to his presidency now commands a far higher priority than getting along with his critics. If so, his actions toward China could make a material difference in how history will view his presidency.

Heretofore his policy with China has been on par with his other foreign policy forays, namely a few ups but many more downs. His inviting Xi in 2013 to an informal summit in Sunnylands could have laid a foundation for a string of collaborations but the opportunity was frittered away by a subsequent series of highly publicized accusations and confrontations.

He is in danger of becoming the first president since Nixon visited China to leave the bilateral relations in a worse shape than when he found it.

With Xi’s state visit, Obama has the opportunity to dramatically rectify the trajectory and significantly improve the bilateral relations, perhaps to even claim achieving the milestone hoped for by Rice.

Xi has steadfastly asserted that China has no desire to be a rival much less an adversary of the U.S., but up to now Obama and Washington have insisted on treating China as a potential enemy.

Thus, the first gesture of reconciliation Obama can take is to tell Xi that he will stop flying surveillance flights off the coast of China. Both sides understand that the surveillance flights have largely been symbolic trappings of the aggressive prerogative of a super power. His offer to stop the flights will be a big boost to building mutual confidence and give Xi a lot of face when he goes back to China.

Next, the highest priority in Xi’s agenda is to complete his anti-corruption drive at home and he has been frustrated by the relative ease corrupt officials have in fleeing to the U.S. By offering to stop admitting Chinese fugitives and help apprehend those already in the U.S., Obama would be providing enormous assistance to Xi. At the same time, Obama can take a principled stand that America is not a safe haven for crooked officials.

When Xi announced the formation of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the “one belt, one road” economic initiative, Obama committed an embarrassing gaff by telling the world not to join the bank. Only Japan listened while 57 other countries including America’s closest allies--among them Australia, South Korea and U.K.--became founding member nations. On the occasion of the summit, Obama should congratulate Xi for his vision and offer to cooperate in the economic development of Asia.

The aforementioned three initiatives are well within Obama’s power to render at the summit meeting and each of them will make a positive impression on Xi and lessen the strain in the bilateral relationship. Even more dramatic and within Obama’s authority is to propose to Xi that China and the U.S. along with S. Korea begin to explore steps that would denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

Up to now six party talks have gotten nowhere because North Korea knows China cannot let its regime implode. As matters stand, while China could welcome the unification of the two Koreas, China could not stand having American military presence in the north. Therefore, if Obama were willing to withdraw American troops from Korea, the North would no longer be able to hold China hostage.

Beijing and Seoul get along as well as Seoul with Washington. Once the three parties see eye to eye on dealing with the North, Pyongyang will either have to moderate their belligerent posture or face real prospects of a regime change.

In untying the Gordian knot that has been North Korea, Obama will have accomplished something that has eluded all seven of U.S. presidents that preceded him. He will be able to claim a spectacular foreign policy win and leave a legacy of his presidency worthy of a Nobel Peace prize laureate. Moreover, he will finally set a course for collaboration instead of confrontation between China and the U.S.

Xi’s state visit gives Obama an opportunity to make history

For myriad of reasons, I have written several commentaries on Xi Jinxing's state visit. This version appeared in China-US Focus and repeated in Asia Times.

China’s president Xi Jinping is coming to the U.S. next month. He has been here before but this time he is coming as head of state for an official state visit. Aside from a great show of pomp and color to beam back for the home TV audience, what else can he accomplish as his prize for coming?

Shortly after Xi became China’s paramount leader, he accepted President Obama’s invitation for an informal summit meeting in a bucolic southern California estate. He must have thought that getting to know Obama on a personal basis would be an important step to building a closer bilateral relationship. From the outset, Xi has placed a closer working relationship with the U.S. among his highest priorities.

When Obama visited Beijing last November, besides a red carpet treatment, he and Xi made two joint surprising announcements. One was an accord to control the emission of green house gases and the other was to issue ten-year, multiple entry visas to citizens of the other country. The multi-entry visa has already resulted in a significant increase of Chinese tourists to the U.S. and a substantial boost to the local economy. Control of green house gases has been one of Obama’s major initiatives that he could now check off as mission in process of being accomplished.

He got tangible results and should feel good about his trip to China. This time, what tangible outcomes Xi will get out of his visit to the U.S. is very much up to Obama.

From the beginning of Obama’s administration to now, America’s relationship with China has been more down than up. For every 100,000 strong initiative to encourage American students to study in China, there have been befuddled gestures contrary to building a friendlier relationship. One of the strangest was to vocally opposed the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. For that Obama got a well-deserved rebuff from the community of nations that overrode his concerns.

For most of his administration, Obama’s foreign policy followed the disastrous course left by his predecessor combined with his desire to offend the least number of his Congressional critics. Lately, however, Obama appears to be conducting more independent measures of foreign policy (note as examples, Cuba and Iran), more according to what he thinks is proper and perhaps with an eye to building his presidential legacy.

Now with Xi’s visit, Obama has a chance to make a positive course correction on America’s most important international relations.

Surely leaving America’s relationship with China worse off, despite the efforts of the seven presidents that preceded him, would only tarnish and not contribute to his legacy. If Obama is receptive to taking actions that would significantly improve relationship with China, I have some suggestions.

First, Obama can visibly stop treating China as an adversary of America. To that end, he should order the military to stop surveillance flights off the coast of China. He won’t be giving up anything that can’t be obtained by satellite. (Let his successor resume those flights in some future date, if that’s what he/she wants.) The main effect of those flights has been as a psychological irritant and the public relations impact of halting the flights would be huge—a small gesture that would give Xi a lot of face back home.

Second, Obama can offer to help Xi’s anti-corruption campaign by making it difficult for corrupt officials to hide in the U.S. In so doing, Obama would be rendering valuable assistance essential for Xi to complete the most important task on his agenda. At the same time, Obama would put America on the moral high ground and be able to tell the world that America does not coddle criminals and fugitives from other countries. Heretofore allowing crooked officials to run loose in America is hardly what the Statue of Liberty’s welcome of immigrants stands for.

Third, Obama should take the opportunity of this summit to reverse his awful and awkward position relative to Xi’s pet projects, namely, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank alongside his silk-road initiatives. Obama should openly applaud Xi for his vision and pledge enthusiastic support and willingness to co-invest and work alongside China in Asia. Xi most likely won’t think of how to take up Obama’s offer but nonetheless his gesture would be warmly appreciated. His message of goodwill would be noted around the world.

The above three initiatives are easy for Obama to implement and can contribute a lot to bringing the two countries closer together. There is yet a fourth initiative that Obama could put on the table with chutzpah and panache on the occasion of his private meeting with Xi, and that would be to propose working on denuclearizing Korea.

Obama can see that South Korea president Park will be in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. North Korea’s Kim is not invited. Arguably China gets along with South Korea as well as the U.S. The three parties, sitting on the same side of the table, can begin the serious discussion that would neutralize future threats from the North. It would take serious efforts from all the parties over time, and Obama can seize a statesman’s initiative by proposing to Xi to let the three parties begin the process.

Solving the Korea conundrum would be a spectacular exclamation mark of his legacy, an accomplishment that has eluded all the presidents that preceded him. His mere willingness to suggest taking on a risky and delicate project would build confidence and mutual trust with Xi and could lead to successful collaboration on many other fronts.