President Barack Obama has pursued a nuanced policy toward China: welcoming its rise and economic growth, seeking to ensure that it is consistent with international law and norms on issues such as trade, investment, law of the sea, and currency -- and working with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure that China's rise contributes to, rather than detracts from, stability. To do so, Obama has strengthened alliances, emphasized that defense budget cutbacks won't affect preparedness in the Western Pacific, and joined leading multilateral organizations like the East Asia Summit, all the while meeting regularly with President Hu Jintao and working with China to tighten sanctions and coordinate strategy on Iran and North Korea. The Obama administration has also stood by Taiwan and its president, Ma Ying-jeou, providing it with arms and other support that have allowed Ma to win reelection and reduce tension in the Taiwan Strait to its lowest level since the Communists took power in 1949.
Xi's visit does not signal new breakthroughs in Washington's relationship with Beijing. He is only the heir apparent, not yet the man in charge, and he will not take bold steps that would upset his colleagues back home. But during his visit the administration can take his measure and communicate that it wants to work with him to create an international environment that doesn't threaten China or the United States and that it seeks to establish a framework for trade and investment that is fair and pro-growth in both countries. Particularly in the wake of rhetoric about a U.S. "pivot" to the Western Pacific accompanying Obama's visit to Asia in November and overexcited Chinese reactions, the Chinese should be told that a strengthened U.S. overall presence in the region will be structured to facilitate, not prevent, China's peaceful rise. In the overheated atmosphere of an election year, it will be important to communicate to Xi that the United States will not take protectionist steps that would be popular for a moment but counterproductive in the long run. At the same time, Xi should be made to understand that U.S. frustrations over trade issues are not a mere election-year ploy, but reflect deep-seated irritation and will be dangerous to the relationship if unaddressed. That will require a recommitment of China's leaders to systemic reform. If on the other hand the United States goes for quick victories and headlines, it will only persuade the man expected to rule China for the next decade to distrust America, rather than want to work with it.