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China’s Xi Visits Obama Amid ‘Quite a Bit of Trouble’ in Relations

February 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited the White House Tuesday, where President Obama cautioned him and his nation that with "expanding power" comes more responsibility. Gwen Ifill discusses the state of U.S.-China relations with the Brookings Institution's Cheng Li and Michael Pillsbury, a Defense Department consultant.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the significance of the visit, we get two views.

Cheng Li is director of research at the China Center at the Brookings Institution. He’s written extensively about China’s leaders. Born and raised in Shanghai, he’s now a U.S. citizen. And Michael Pillsbury is a longtime consultant to the Defense Department focusing on China. He also served in the Reagan administration.

Welcome to you both.

Cheng Li, tell us, what do we need to know about this man who is likely to be China’s next leader?

CHENG LI, Brookings Institution: Well, he is a man of contradictions. This can be found in his background, in his policy and in his attitude towards United States.

In terms of his background, he comes from a very prominent leadership family. We call him princeling, we can, rather, nobility. This is very privileged in life, and — but also at the same time he was central to cultural revolution, because his father was purged.

So, at the age of 15, he was sent to a remote area, very poor, primitive area to work as a farmer for six years. So that experience taught him a lot of things: humility, adaptability and et cetera. He thought this was his defining formative experience.

Now, in terms of policies, he is very market friendly. And he served as a provincial leader in Fujian and Shanghai. These areas are very famous for private sector, dynamic private sector, where he was a leader. He really promoted private sector.

But at the same time that he never said anything about political reform. So politically he is a conservative. And finally his attitude towards the United States, he actually gave on a number of occasions very harsh words criticizing the United States, very nationalistic. But at the same time, he said he loved American movies, World War II movies.

He had sent his daughter to the United States, but also most importantly that he made personal decisions when he’s the provincial chief in Zhejiang to bury the ashes of the U.S. last ambassador, John Stuart, who was a missionary, educator, who served as the president of Yenching University and also the U.S. last ambassador for China in 1949.

Because he was born in China, he wanted to — his wishes — in his wishes, he wanted to — yes, bury. Xi Jinping did that, because this is very difficult, Chairman Mao wrote a piece filled with Stuart, sounds like he’s a symbolic figure of the American imperialism.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

Well, here we have a mixed bag, Michael Pillsbury, what we’re hearing. We’re hearing that in some ways, he was a princeling. He was born to — he was to the manner born. On the other hand, he seems to have this affection for private enterprise. Is he — would he be a reformer in the Western sense or in any sense of the word?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY, Pentagon consultant: Probably not. They have sort of a committee system that runs China. So any individual can’t really rise above or ignore his colleagues.

And I agree with you, there’s contradictory evidence about Vice President Xi. And in their system, it’s quite the opposite of our Republican primary, where each person can attack the others’ views and go over their record. He can’t do that in China.

He has got to lie low for one year now and make sure that his transition is successful. And the past three times, the person in his position, as the chosen successor, has been killed or purged because of things that happened in the run-up to the succession.

So this is not the time that we can get a good feel for what Xi’s exact views are. He looks almost too good to be true.

GWEN IFILL: Well, he’s coming here to the United States doing — following in the footsteps of Hu Jintao, who did the same thing, and met with the United States president before he became president.

And today in his meetings with Joe Biden and with Barack Obama, he used words like consensus and candid and constructive dialogue. We have heard that before. What does that tell us about what he came here to accomplish?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, these kinds of polite comments in public are not any indication of what’s actually going on or what his true views are.

GWEN IFILL: At all?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Behind the scenes, there’s quite a bit of trouble in U.S.-China relations. Things are better than 10 years ago.

I remember very well when Hu Jintao came here, came to the Pentagon. It’s only a year before that they had held our P-3 air crew basically hostage and then gave us a bill for a million dollars for the food and hotel room of the crew. It was quite outrageous.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Now that hasn’t happened. Now the problems involve Tibet, human rights, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, like President Obama, got the same Peace Prize, being in jail as we sit here. There’s a long list of 10 or 12 items.

GWEN IFILL: Currency manipulation.

CHENG LI: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: The veto against the Syria resolution in the United Nations.

CHENG LI: Well, all these problems are real.

But I will not get any conclusion about him and his political views, because it’s too early, because he will be forced to do a lot of things, because the environment both domestic and internationally change. And if he’s a smart leader, he will seize the moment, seize the opportunity to do the right things on the right side of history.

Now, he said all the right terms during his meetings . . .

GWEN IFILL: Right.

CHENG LI: . . . talk about mutual benefit, talk about mutual respect, at least — maybe even mutual trust.

These are precisely needed if these two countries move to the next level of development. So it’s much better to say these things, rather than to just point fingers to each other.

GWEN IFILL: Trust seems like a step too far. I don’t hear a lot of trust coming either from Chinese leaders or from U.S. leaders right now, especially in this kind of political environment.

Is that a bar that has to be met?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: It’s probably impossible to reduce the misunderstandings and the distrust.

They have a number of military programs that are just facts on the ground, testing missiles that can sink American aircraft carriers. That’s the only purpose of those missiles. Testing missiles that can shoot down satellites, and possibly developing so many of these anti-satellite missiles that they could overwhelm all the reconnaissance satellites we have.

We don’t have that many satellites in space. The cyber-attacks, the false defense budget, claiming they only have a defense budget of this much when we think they have more than twice as much. So these are not matters that polite conversation or saying, gee, I agree with you help to resolve. They’re facts on the ground, the Dalai Lama being excluded from dialogue.

GWEN IFILL: Yes. There’s no middle ground on that one.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: No.

CHENG LI: Ultimately, if you really want to build trust, China needs to change. China needs to transform to a more democratic, truly market- driven economy.

Of course, it’s still — it’s too early to say whether they can really move that direction. But on the other hand, if it were based on strategic tensions, there’s almost no hope. But if we look at individual levels, you do see some friendship exists everywhere between Chinese and Americans.

There’s a lot of corporations, a lot of changes, education, culture, economics. So these kinds of things could be foundation of eventually could lead to something very, very . . .

GWEN IFILL: So, a visit like today, for Xi in particular, or for President Obama, is it for a domestic audience at home, or is it for an international audience to raise his stature abroad?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, this is something we really have to do. Here’s the man who may well be running China for the next 10 years.

And for him to have some face-to-face impressions, what are America’s policy priorities, how do the American leaders speak to me alone in the Oval Office or in the Pentagon, these are very important messages for us to get across. And this trip is very much in our interest. In fact, I was quite thrilled today.

And unlike 10 years ago with Hu Jintao, this time, the Pentagon gave a full military honors ceremony, firing off a 19-gun salute, having the Fife and Drum Corps come out. And Secretary Panetta was chatting in a friendly manner in English with Vice President Xi. So this is all the beginning of trying to influence China to go in another direction.

GWEN IFILL: Well, is that significant?

CHENG LI: It’s not just respect for Mr. Xi, but also respect, a very rapidly changing China and also great people in China. I think that’s appropriate.

But talk about Xi, I think that certainly he has a more important audience at home, because he has a dilemma. If he is perceived as like the unnecessary confrontation and not like a statesman or global leader, that will hurt him. But if he is perceived as a person very soft toward the United States or too accommodating to the United States or even sacrifice China’s interests, that will be a disaster. So he needs to have — got to keep the balance.

GWEN IFILL: Have to walk that line.

GWEN IFILL: We’re going to have to leave it there.

Cheng Li . . .

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: I noticed there was no bows today. Neither one bowed to the other.

GWEN IFILL: No bows.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: That’s probably a good thing.

GWEN IFILL: Cheng Li, Michael Pillsbury, thank you both very much.