US & Canada

China's Xi and Obama stick to script in Washington

US President Barack Obama and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping speak during meetings in the Oval Office Washington, DC, 14 February 2012
Image caption The two leaders will be watched closely by rivals and colleagues in their own countries

With an election looming in the US and a delicate political transition around the corner in China, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping and his hosts in Washington both tried hard to pull off the same balancing act: sound tough, in a friendly way.

If nothing goes wrong for either Mr Xi or President Barack Obama, they will be presidents of their respective countries next year, stewards of the complex relationship between the world's two largest economies.

With Mr Obama's foes here watching his every word, and Mr Xi's colleagues in Beijing closely scrutinising his performance on the world stage, a lot was riding on each performance. For the two countries as well, the future tone and tenor of the relationship was at stake.

Every positive statement came with a caveat; every outstretched hand came with a warning.

'Unprecedented honour'

President Obama wanted to make sure his Republican opponents wouldn't be able to use any of his comments to accuse him of being soft on China. But his administration wanted to show Mr Xi, China's president-in-waiting, the utmost respect.

So the White House went beyond protocol and has given the vice-president a grand reception including joint statements with the president in the Oval Office, camera flashes and all, followed by an 85-minute-long meeting.

He later received an unprecedented honour for a vice-president: a 19-gun salute at the Pentagon.

"I have always emphasized that we welcome China's peaceful rise, that we believe that a strong and prosperous China is one that can help to bring stability at prosperity to the region and to the world," said Mr Obama.

He looked like he was trying hard not to smile too much to his guest.

It was the appropriate serious facial expression to accompany the caveat: Mr Obama went on to say that with China's growing power came responsibilities. China, he added, had to play by the rules.

"It also means that on critical issues like human rights, we will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognising the aspirations and rights of all people," said Mr Obama.

Unfair trade practices, accusations of currency manipulations, human rights abuses and China's geopolitical ambitions are all concerns in Washington and issues that Republican presidential candidates repeatedly discuss in their frequent verbal attacks against China.

Mr Xi smiled and looked at ease next to Mr Obama in the Oval Office on Tuesday, but he sounded guarded, talking about mutual respect.

He made up for it on his second day in Washington, eager to play to nationalist sentiment at home.

"China welcomes the United States playing a constructive role in promoting the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region," he said. But then came the caveat: don't go too far.

"At the same time, we hope the US side will truly respect the interests and concerns of countries in the region, including China," Mr Xi added.

And just like his hosts, he put down the usual markers: China wanted the US to address its concerns by "lifting restrictions on high-tech exports to China and providing a level playing field for Chinese firms investing in America".

He also sounded a note of warning on Tibet.

"We also hope that the United States will truly honour its commitment of recognising Tibet as part of China and opposing Tibetan independence and will handle Tibetan independence in a prudent and proper manner."

The whole visit and every statement is carefully choreographed and no one, except for Vice-President Joe Biden, who attempted a couple of jokes, deviated from the script.

'Unstoppable river'

Despite the tension between the two countries, both seem to recognise that as the world's two largest economies, they must find a way to work together. Those statements, too, have become part of the cautious dance between Chinese and American officials

"Chinese-US relations are now at a new historical starting point in the second decade of the 21st Century," said Mr Xi. "It is a course that cannot be stopped or reversed," he added describing the relationship between the two countries as an "unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead" despite twists and turns.

Mr Xi doesn't speak for China yet so the visit will not have helped advance the relationship in any tangible way, and it was never expected to produce any specific agreements either.

But it was a first official date with the man who will most likely be China's next president and it will have given the Obama administration a better sense of what he thinks and what his priorities might be, or at least how he operates.

After official meetings in Washington, talks in Congress and meetings with the business community, Mr Xi travels onwards to Iowa and California to continue his Chinese-style charm offensive and meet the rest of his American ''constituents'': farmers who export to China, more business leaders and young Americans studying Chinese.

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