Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan wave after arriving at Nur Khan base in Islamabad for a state visit in April. (Reuters Photo/Press Information Department)

Andrew Hammond: Why Xi's US Visit Is the Most Important in Decades


SEPTEMBER 23, 2015

President Xi Jinping will make his first state visit to the White House on Thursday to meet President Barack Obama. The trip, which has been billed in some quarters as the most important US visit by a Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping in 1979, is drawing massive global attention which reflects both Xi’s growing stature as a world statesman, and the prominence China now enjoys in international affairs.

Coming at a time of significant tension in bilateral relations, there is an extensive economic and security agenda for the meeting with Obama, who is now in the last year and a half of his presidency. The talks will range from the outlook for the global economy following the recent devaluations of the yuan; Asia-Pacific economic integration; regional security issues in Asia and beyond, including in the South China Sea; and alleged cyber attacks on US interests by Beijing.

The financial side of the equation is particularly pressing with continuing concerns across the world, including Wall Street, about the Chinese economy’s health. The latter is on track to record this year its slowest growth in over two decades, and this Summer’s stock market gyrations have only fueled the uncertainty.

In addition to reassuring about China’s economic strength, Xi has a broader desire to use the trip to continue his avowed project to fundamentally redevelop a new type of great power relationship with the United States. This is an audacious goal which still lacks, currently, any obvious definition.

What is clear, however, already is that Xi’s ambition reflects an assessment that China’s rising power needs to be underpinned by better international understanding and appreciation of the country. One of the consequences of Beijing’s continued path to international prominence, despite recent slower Chinese economic growth, has been a sea change in perceptions of the country.

Especially since the 2008 global financial crash, there has been a significant shift in international expectations that Beijing has or is fast assuming superpower status. This is reflected not just in the views of some political elites, but also international public opinion according to Pew Global Research.

Between 2009 and 2011 alone, there was a 10 or more percentage point increase in public sentiment in countries as diverse as Spain, France, Pakistan, Jordan, Israel, Poland and Germany that China will or already has surpassed the United States as the world’s most powerful state, according to Pew. And as of 2015, majorities or pluralities in 27 of the 40 countries surveyed by Pew believe that Beijing either will eventually replace or already has replaced Washington as the world’s leading superpower.

Foreign acknowledgement of China’s strength is often welcomed in Beijing. However, this trend is not uniformly positive, for the country’s rising prominence has aroused anxiety in some countries, including currently in the United States.

Generally, US and wider international opinion tends to be more favorable towards China’s rise when it is framed in terms of the country’s growing economic power. Hence, why Xi began his trip in Seattle in Washington state which exports more to China than any other US state. However, Beijing’s ascendancy is viewed less favorably when seen through the prism of its stronger military prowess.

From Beijing’s vantage point, such foreign concerns reflect misperceptions over its intentions as a rising power. And Xi appears to recognize that this is exacerbated by a broader deficit in China’s global soft power.

To be sure, Beijing has invested many billions of dollars in recent years on foreign charm offensives and has achieved some significant successes. Nevertheless, the country’s soft power has not increased at the same pace as its hard power (economic and military might).

For instance, BBC surveys have found that China’s global reputation, tracked across 25 countries, sunk in 2013 to its lowest level since the annual study began in 2005, and has since stabilised around this level. In 2013, there was an average fall-off of 8 percentage points in positive views towards China compared to 2012, and an increase in negative views also by 8 percentage points.

Moreover, according to the 2014 BBC survey (the latest available), China is one of the countries whose influence has worsened most over the past decade. Whereas in 2005 positive views were held by nearly half of international publics and strongly outweighed negative views (32 percent), perceptions have flipped. Positive views have dropped 13 percentage points to 35 percent in 2014 and are eclipsed by negative views (49 percent, up 17 percentage points).

This soft-power deficit is one key reason why Xi is placing such emphasis on developing a new type of great-power relationship. In effect, he is seeking to double-down on Beijing’s long-standing pledges of securing a harmonious, peaceful rise to power and being a responsible stakeholder in the international system.

If China is truly to transform its image, however, it will need to overcome multiple other issues that have meant Beijing has so far secured relatively limited dividends from its soft-power investment. One pivotal problem is that while the country has an attractive culture that has long been admired by foreigners, there is sometimes a yawning gap between that and the Communist regime’s actions.

Thus, the celebration of Chinese culture was one reason why the 2008 Olympics were such a success. However, much of these soft-power dividends were squandered soon afterwards, when Beijing clamped down in Tibet.

China’s image would also benefit from enhanced public diplomacy to win more foreign “hearts and minds.” At a symbolic level, example measures might include utilizing the country’s growing capabilities in space travel for high-profile international cooperation projects. Surveys underline that many around the world admire China’s strength in science and technology.

The challenges are of course much more wide-ranging and deep-seated, however, and will be the work of more than one state visit to overcome. Indeed, enhancing China’s reputation in the United States is a truly generational task that will require not only sustained investment, but also domestic reform, during Xi’s presidency.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS (the Center for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics, and was formerly a UK government special adviser.