Last month, as Barack Obama's administration began to prepare for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington, someone close to the U.S. vice president leaked that Joe Biden would "take over" China policy. The leaker made the case that Biden had a good rapport with Xi, thus priming the U.S. vice president to add the China mandate to his portfolio. According to a number of administration sources, however, this leak was nothing more than an instance of a Washington-style power play -- or score settling. But the episode does demonstrate how important the China relationship has become in the Washington power game, how the portfolio is troublingly up for grabs, and how wildly elbows swing (or pivot) to take control of it.
How important is the relationship between top U.S. and Chinese leaders? And shouldn't China policy be about more than a single relationship?
If one judges by the seriousness of purpose with which Chinese and U.S. officials are taking Xi's visit, the answer to the first question is that top-level engagement is very important. By all accounts, Xi is the putative next leader of China, and both sides want a successful visit for different reasons.
For Xi, the purpose of his visit is to consolidate his power over an ever more complex Chinese political system. This is no easy feat. Xi needs to demonstrate to rival party factions, to the People's Liberation Army, to the growing business class, and increasingly to the public that he is in command of the most important foreign-policy portfolio. His various constituencies will search for signs that he is 1) tough enough on the Americans; 2) committed to continuing economic reform; but 3) not overly committed -- lest he ignore what China calls "social tensions." Obviously, these tasks are somewhat contradictory, and in the end, form will be more important than substance. It's not as if it's all going to be settled by a day or two in Washington. Chinese leaders will be satisfied if there are no major missteps during the visit.
The Obama administration will look for some of the same things. But true to American political culture, U.S. officials will also always try to divine whether the new leader is "someone we can work with." This is particularly true now, as relations with China have been especially tense during the current term. There have been contretemps over the South China Sea, North Korea, Taiwan, and trade issues. Administration officials have all but given up on President Hu Jintao. They view him as too risk-averse and hope that Xi represents a new kind of leader, one who is more cosmopolitan and open-minded then his predecessors. They hope Xi will finally be the Chinese leader who accepts the U.S. view that China does best by embracing the made-in-America rules of the road.
Alas, U.S. officials are likely to be disappointed. The Chinese system simply will not allow Xi to govern in bold strokes. As the first leader without the blessing of China's revolutionary generation (it cannot bless from the grave), Xi will likely be as risk-averse as Hu and more beholden to consensus within the Politburo Standing Committee, more deferential to the People's Liberation Army, and less likely to undertake liberal reforms given current social conditions. Although he seems to have Hu's support, there are other ambitious politicians who would gladly take advantage if Xi slipped up.