Chinese President Xi Jinping is embarking on his first state visit to the United States this week amid economic and security tensions that many experts describe as the most serious in a decade.
Arriving in Seattle on Tuesday, he’ll glad-hand with titans of industry like Warren Buffett, Apple’s Tim Cook and Disney’s Bob Iger. In Washington, he’ll receive a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn and have a formal dinner with President Obama. In New York, he’ll deliver a speech at the United Nations.
For Xi, the optics of those appearances — and the opportunity to make personal connections with America’s business and political leaders — are key.
But bubbling beneath the surface of Xi’s visit will be mounting friction over cyberattacks, as well as military issues, territorial claims, economic reforms and human rights concerns. These sore points have risen into public view in the weeks leading up to the summit, lowering expectations for any major breakthroughs on issues of substance.
Facing a slowing economy and in the midst of a contentious campaign to root out corruption in the Communist Party, Xi is keenly interested in using the summit to showcase himself as a strong leader, and having Chinese citizens perceive the summit as a harmonious meeting between equals. Chinese officials are closely focused on minute details of what kind of video and photo coverage the trip will generate for audiences at home.
“The pomp in this is going to be every bit as important as the substance,” said Christopher Johnson, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
What the Obama administration will be able to point to as a win, though, remains to be seen. Concern has been mounting on Capitol Hill about computer hacks blamed on China; American business groups are making noisy complaints about what they see as threatening and unfair Chinese policies; and some GOP presidential contenders have even called for the president to downgrade or even scrap Xi’s visit.
U.S. officials are hoping they will get a public pledge from Xi that China will help hold Tehran to its commitments in the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama administration is eager for such a public endorsement at a moment when critics of the agreement are predicting that Beijing and other countries will cut corners on the deal in their eagerness to start buying more oil from Iran and doing more business with the nation.
“This would be validation from an important partner on the deal,” said Johnson.
Obama and Xi are also expected to say they are cooperating on stabilizing the world economy and markets at a jittery moment — a statement that would be welcomed by foreign leaders and investors. The two leaders will discuss the Bilateral Investment Treaty that’s been under negotiation for years. Those talks have bogged down, with American business leaders complaining that China has yet to sufficiently pare its “negative list” of the economic sectors that will be off-limits to American involvement.
“There’s probably not much to talk about on the treaty,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist at Brookings Institution.
U.S. officials warned that China’s rapid military modernization is aimed at projecting power in East Asia and at raising the risks the United States faces if it intervenes in maritime hot spots, such as the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, where Beijing has long-standing territorial claims. Chinese officials say Xi will raise the issue of Taiwan in his talks with Obama.
“China is incrementally and unilaterally changing the status quo through coercion, intimidation, even force,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, at a hearing Thursday. “Its goal appears clear: the assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea.”
Beijing has spent the last two years building large artificial islands on once-tiny reefs and rock outcroppings in the South China Sea and is now building airstrips and other facilities on the islands, apparently to use as military outposts.
For now, U.S. officials believe they can pressure China to scale back its island-building by galvanizing other Asian governments against it. In recent months, the U.S. has encouraged Japan to begin naval patrols in the South China Sea, where it doesn’t normally sail, and provided ships and other equipment to the Philippine and Vietnamese coast guards.
The biggest cloud hanging over the summit, however, has been the issue of espionage and other Chinese cyberattacks. U.S. intelligence officials have linked China’s security services to the theft of medical data from health insurance giant Anthem and travel records stolen from United Airlines. Those breaches, officials believe, were conducted by Chinese criminal hackers on behalf of the Chinese government. In addition, China is believed to have orchestrated the cyberlooting of security clearance files and personnel records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
After news reports broke this month that the White House was drafting sanctions against Chinese businesses and individuals for hacking, China hastily dispatched a senior official, Meng Jianzhu, to Washington to head off the possibility of an embarrassing announcement in the days before Xi’s visit.
Meng held four days of meetings with FBI Director James B. Comey, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and national security advisor Susan Rice. The meetings took on an especially urgent tone as Meng prepared to depart. U.S. and Chinese staff worked together in a Washington hotel until 4 a.m. on Sept. 12, hammering out an agreement aimed at forestalling sanctions in exchange for Chinese promises to cooperate more in investigations of cyberattacks.
The negotiators tentatively settled on the outlines of four areas of agreement, that, if adopted, would for the first time establish rules of the road for the two countries on cyberattacks and how they can cooperate when there are investigations of misconduct in cyberspace. Two U.S. officials described the negotiations on condition of anonymity in discussing the closed-door deliberations, but would not reveal the details of the agreement. The late-night haggling session could form the basis for an announcement on cybersecurity cooperation during Xi’s visit, if both sides agree to make it public.
But some U.S. officials are concerned that China won’t follow through with its promises after Xi’s visit, leaving open the possibility that sanctions could be imposed later.
On Wednesday, Obama took a tough stance, warning that the U.S. would take action if attacks continue.
“We are preparing a number of measures that will indicate to the Chinese that this is not just a matter of us being mildly upset, but is something that will put significant strains on the bilateral relationship if not resolved,” Obama told executives at the Business Roundtable group in Washington.
“We are prepared to take some countervailing actions in order to get their attention,” he said. “My hope is that it gets resolved short of that.”
If the U.S. goes forward with sanctions against Chinese businesses and individuals, it would be the first use of a presidential order signed in April giving the U.S. Treasury authority to freeze bank accounts and property of individuals and foreign entities that engage in commercial espionage online or destructive cyberattacks. The sanctions would also prohibit U.S. companies from doing business with listed individuals and entities.
Beyond computer hacking, Obama is expected to challenge Xi on China’s recently adopted and proposed laws dealing with its national security and limiting the activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations. The NGO regulations could limit the operations of U.S. universities that have a presence in China, as well as other American nonprofit groups that work in areas including the environment, health and civil society. These groups — supported, somewhat unusually, by U.S. business interests — have applied significant pressure on the administration to speak out on the matter.
“Obama’s probably going to address this very robustly,” said Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’ll probably be a testy issue.”
In a sign of some cooperation before the visit, the U.S. repatriated one of China’s most-wanted fugitives, Yang Jinjun, who faces corruption charges.
Still, Clayton Dube, head of the U.S.-China Institute at USC, said he believes U.S.-China frictions are greater than they’ve been in the last 10 years.
“I think there’s a very real set of issues that really defy easy resolution,” he said. What makes the situation even more complicated, added Dube, is that economic and business relations — which for years have served as a sort of ballast in the relationship — have also gotten rockier.
“You’ve got the business community — which was previously lobbying for the U.S. government to tread lightly, to facilitate greater exchange to not get in the way — now it’s asking the U.S. government to do what it can to alleviate issues and do what it can. When you have business communities mobilizing on things like proposed NGO law, that’s unusual,” he said.
“When you have so much concern about difficulty protecting one’s network, IP, trade practices or negotiating secrets, when there’s this much worrying going on, it really speaks to a new era in U.S.-China relations.”
Makinen reported from Beijing and Cloud and Richter from Washington. Times staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.