Friday, 24 February 2012

17 February 2012

Picture the scene: in one chair sits the leader of the richest and most powerful nation in the world. His name: Barack Obama, President of the United States of America.

In a second chair, sits the man who's probably about to take the title away from him. His name: Xi Jinping, Vice-President of the People's Republic of China.

Within the next year or so, Mr Xi is expected to have taken over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and State President. During his decade in office, China is expected to overtake the US as the biggest economy in the world and will be well on the way to outspending it militarily as well. And this week, he's been in Washington on a getting-to-know-you visit.

We can get the jokes out of the way now. The current Chinese president is Hu Jintao, and has been the inevitable butt of innumerable jokes of the "President Who?" variety.

Mr Xi (pronounced She) will, I suspect, soon be subjected to countless "He said, Xi said" jokes. (The usually respectable Foreign Policy magazine has already run a spoof headline competition: the winner was a headline for a story about a new Chinese high speed train line -- "Xi's got a ticket to ride.")

Silly jokes aside, President-to-be Xi could soon be one of the most important men on the planet. And the relationship he establishes with Mr Obama -- or with whoever is in the White House after the US presidential election in November -- will be a critical one.

At present, the relationship between the two countries is said by some analysts to be suffering from a "trust deficit". Washington doesn't trust what it sees as Beijing's military expansionism, or what it regards as unfair trade practices; Beijing distrusts the US's stated intention of building up a much more significant military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and its supposed penchant for expecting still to be treated as the only real global super-power.

Last November, on a visit to Australia, President Obama said: "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay." Two months later, as he unveiled the new US defence strategy, he said: "We'll be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and [military] budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region."

The message could hardly have been clearer. US allies in the region -- but especially Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan -- are already nervous about China's regional ambitions, in the knowledge that there are valuable mineral resources waiting to be exploited in the East and South China Seas. That's why they want a beefed-up US military presence.

When I was in China just over a year ago, I was astounded at the huge changes in the country since my previous visit some five years earlier. It wasn't just the rush-hour traffic jams in Beijing; it was also the palpable sense of a society on the move, economically, socially and politically.

No more Communist party minders for visiting foreign journalists; lively political debates on the internet; openly expressed disagreements about some aspects of foreign and economic policy. (No, I'm not saying China has turned into a liberal democracy, far from it -- the Tibetans know that only too well, as do any number of political dissidents and activists -- but there is a far greater degree of political openness than many outsiders appreciate.)

For Mr Xi, it means a country that will be much more difficult to control. An internationally-publicised village rebellion in the south of the country has led to a fascinating experiment: a genuine, open, free election, conducted by secret ballot, in which villagers will be able to choose their own leaders. Perhaps it's a sign of things to come.

For now, though, Western leaders still seem to be fixated on telling China what they want from it. Vote with us on a Syria resolution at the United Nations; free up your trade policies; allow your currency to increase in value so that your competitive advantage is reduced.

But President-to-be Xi is giving little away. In the US this week, he has said nothing that hasn't been said many times before by other Chinese leaders. But he is still the man to watch -- because before too long, he's likely to be the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.

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