China's Xi shows US new style but questions linger

by Shaun Tandon, Agence France Presse

Posted at Feb 19 2012 03:08 PM | Updated as of Feb 20 2012 09:09 AM

WASHINGTON - After a long-awaited trip, Americans have learned that China's likely next leader enjoys basketball and the fresh Midwestern air but are still in the dark on how he will handle rising tensions.

Vice President Xi Jinping, who is on course to lead the fast-growing Asian power through 2023, journeyed through the United States for a week with a warm welcome in Washington and photo-friendly stops in Iowa and Los Angeles.

The 58-year-old showed a different style from China's typically stiff President Hu Jintao. Xi appeared at ease with Americans as he reminisced with people he met in 1985 on an exchange to Iowa and later praised the clean Midwestern air as he hopped onto a tractor.

Xi referenced films "The Godfather" and "Mission: Impossible" and closed his trip Friday by taking in a Lakers basketball game in Los Angeles. His delegation committed to buying billions of dollars in soybeans and letting in more Hollywood movies.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who was Xi's host and traveled to China last year, said that the two have spent some 20 hours getting to know each other and have spoken of everything "from Confucius to Catholicism."

"I strongly believe, and I think Vice President Xi does as well, that the honest, sustained dialogue we've had this week can and will build a stronger relationship that benefits both our nations and our people," Biden said.

But experts saw few signs of what if any changes Xi would make as president. Xi is expected to begin the first of two five-year terms next year.

Xi stuck to script by saying that China was assessing US charges of unfair trade practices and promising "constructive" dialogue on China's human rights record, which Biden and activists said has deteriorated.

"Our top political leaders have an interest in seeing anything as new because they've had a really tough time with the old guys," said Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.

"We're projecting a lot of our own wishes onto a man we don't know anything about. The fact that he may be less stiff and make a joke or two, all of a sudden that turns into that this is a guy we can do business with," he said.

It is not the first time that US policymakers, frustrated by China's opaque political system, have looked hard at personal traits for clues. Former leader Deng Xiaoping famously donned a cowboy hat when he visited a rodeo on a US trip in 1979, foreshadowing in some experts' eyes his economic reforms.

In a flip to the assessments of Xi, some US experts had hoped for smoother relations with China when Hu became president in 2003. Hu was seen as representing a more serious side as he succeeded the extroverted Jiang Zemin, who once sang Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" on a visit to the Philippines.

But relations between the Pacific powers remain uneasy a decade later and China -- despite Xi's stated hopes -- is shaping up to become a campaign issue in the US elections in November.

Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, criticized Obama's welcome for Xi and called China a "prosperous tyranny." He vowed that he would toughen US policy on concerns from its currency value to human rights to defense.

Obama has moved to reassert the US military presence in Asia, where China has growing disputes with its neighbors, and told Xi that a rising Beijing must play by international "rules" on trade.

But Obama also said that he welcomed China's rise and wanted cooperation, hoping to ease widespread concerns in Beijing that the United States is trying to contain the growing Asian power.

Xi is expected to lead China through a decade in which many experts believe that it will surpass the United States as the world's largest economy and steadily expand influence.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Hawaii-based Pacific Forum, said that a warmer personal relationship between Xi and US leaders can only be a positive.

"It could also help China's image in the US which then makes it easier for a president to be more cordial without being accused of bending to China," Cossa said.

But China, compared with the United States, has a political system less driven by individuals. Experts say it is uncertain what level of authority Xi has on the Politburo Standing Committee, which collectively makes decisions.

Xi "may be the first among equals but he will not have absolute power," Cossa said. "It will likely not be until his second term when, if ever, we see the real Xi emerge."