Xi Jinping's Visit and the End of the 'Nixon Goes to China' Era

The presumed next leader of China wants to keep building the U.S.-China relationship, but some things have changed.

The presumed next leader of China wants to keep building the U.S.-China relationship, but some things have changed.

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China's Vice President Xi Jinping meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office / Reuters

It's a safe bet that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is considered heir apparent to the leadership of China, had a better time in Washington on Monday night than he did on Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, Xi dined with some of the old lions of U.S. foreign policy, among them former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. These retired officials tend to stress the need for a continuity of ties and the long-term stability of the "G-2" relationship between Washington and Beijing.

On Tuesday, by contrast, Xi ran into a faceful of decorous but pointed U.S. criticism during official meetings with President Obama and Vice President Biden. Obama, who has engaged in a frank policy of pressure on Beijing that includes beefing up partnerships with India, the Philippines, and Myanmar, deploying Marines to Australia and assembling a trans-Pacific trade partnership intended to force Chinese observance of intellectual property rights, told Xi that China needed to be a better global citizen.

"With expanding power and prosperity also comes increased responsibilities," the president said as he sat next to Xi in the Oval Office. "We want to work with China to make sure that everybody is working by the same rules of the road when it comes to the world economic system, and that includes ensuring that there is a balanced trade flow," he said. Biden hammered home the same points.

Xi, who is expected to take over from President Hu Jintao next year (though he is slated to replace Hu as general secretary of the Communist Party this spring), knows that he will face a dramatic strategic shift of U.S. forces and attention toward the Asia-Pacific with an eye to "China rising," as deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes described it to me in an interview in December. So it was perhaps no surprise that Xi, in his public remarks Tuesday, seemed eager to hark back to the history of the relationship, when for long periods China was more an ally than a rival. Xi noted that "this year marks the 40th anniversary of President Nixon's visit to China," and that  "despite some twists and turns over the past four decades, China-U.S. relations have kept moving forward, scoring achievements of historic proportions."

No doubt Xi got encouragement on this score from Brzezinski, who despite his reputation as a hard-liner during the Cold War takes a very different view of China in his new book, Strategic Vision. Brzezinski says that China's policy of a "peaceful rise" must be treated very differently from the "self-delusional" and aggressive rise of the Soviet Union or Hitler's Germany. He counsels that the U.S. should avoid getting into a war over China's claims on Taiwan, even though it was during the Carter administration, when Brzezinski served as national security advisor, that the Taiwan Relations Act was signed. The 1979 law, which normalized relations with Beijing and broke diplomatic ties with the Republic of China, says that Washington will "consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means ... of grave concern to the United States."

Brzezinski, in an email message Tuesday night, told National Journal that Xi was "very general" during the meeting and that "we were making suggestions."

Still, Xi must already realize that the old Nixon-Goes-to-China days are gone. Inside the Pentagon, officials are debating how to handle the rise of China, and the focus is shifting from Army-led counterinsurgency toward an Air Force and Navy kind of war-fighting strategy called "AirSea Battle" that could involve a long term arms race between Washington and Beijing.