Will Xi’s US visit tackle thorny issues?

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Amid growing friction between the world’s top two economies, China’s President Xi Jinping is set to embark on a six-day state visit to the US. DW examines the sticking points and what can be expected of the trip.

The first leg of Xi’s state visit will start in Seattle on September 22, where the president is set to hold talks with US corporate leaders. The Chinese president will then head to Washington on September 24 to meet US President Barack Obama at the White House.

Xi’s US trip comes at a critical juncture in the relations between the two countries. While long-standing issues such as China’s huge trade surplus with the US continue to afflict bilateral ties, new problems concerning cybersecurity and Beijing’s growing assertiveness in territorial disputes with neighboring countries over the South China Sea have further strained the relationship, said Guo Xiangang, a political analyst at the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank.

Cybersecurity is a particularly thorny issue. In the past several years, China has been repeatedly accused of launching cyber attacks on the US. However, Beijing has time and again denied the allegations, stressing that China itself is a victim of cyber espionage. Nevertheless, President Obama will raise US government’s concerns during his meeting with Xi in Washington, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest recently said.

A cybersecurity deal?

“In the short term, I am really pessimistic about the possibility of the two powers coming to an amicable settlement over this issue,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the US at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

But analyst Guo told DW that China might show a greater interest in tackling the issue of cyber espionage, as the East Asian nation sees itself as a victim of this practice. The expert said that both Obama and Xi will address the matter in a comprehensive manner, adding that China’s security chief, Meng Jianzhu, had traveled to the US a few days earlier to discuss the issue with US officials.

 

According to a recent New York Times report, the two countries are also negotiating an agreement aimed at protecting each other from cyber attacks. The two sides have intensified their talks with the objective of announcing a deal during Xi’s visit, said the paper. China expert Daly stressed, however, that the issue is likely to be resolved in the medium term, rather than in the coming days.

The ‘great power’ relationship

In the meantime, the Chinese leader says he wants to develop a new type of relationship between so-called “great powers” and his country to be treated “on a par” with the US. But while Xi’s use of the term “great power relationship” is currently making headlines in Chinese media, it still faces resistance in the US.

“President Obama might use this term once to please his guest from China,” said Daly. He argues that a new superpower relationship between China and the US means to avoid treating each other with hostility. “While the motive behind this is a positive one, we Americans do not like such terms,” the expert noted.

South China Sea disputes

In contrast to the issue of cybersecurity, Beijing makes no secret of the fact that it views the South China Sea as its own southern backyard. China’s controversial land reclamation projects in the disputed waters surrounding the Spratly Islands have not only angered neighboring countries, but also triggered sharp criticism from the US.

“The disputes over the South China Sea are not an issue between China and the US,” said analyst Guo, adding that they should be resolved between China and its neighbors. “The Americans should not intervene and they should act in a geopolitically shrewd manner, while approaching these issues,” he said.

However, the US has a different view, as Daly explains: “The core interests of China and the US are incompatible when it comes to the South China Sea,” the expert underlined. Beijing claims most of the potentially energy-rich waterway, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, arguing that it is asserting its so-called “historic rights” to maritime resources in the area. But Washington insists on freedom of navigation and on keeping the sea lanes open.

Given the numerous points of contention between the two sides, Guo argues that mechanisms must be developed to prevent any further escalation. “This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing US-China ties at the moment.”

 

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