The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has begun its 18th Congress, at which the next generation of China's leaders will emerge, including Xi Jinping, the heir apparent for the current President Hu Jintao. Not much is known about Xi and his views of the world or his country's policies.
Moving forward, it's crucial that we know where Xi stands on important matters like the future of U.S. - China relations, the Iran nuclear problem, and the ongoing territorial problems between China and its Asian neighbors.
The question for the U.S. to be asking is: Can Xi and Obama work together on mutual interests and resolve bilateral disputes between the two powers?
Who is Xi and What Does He Want?
One concern is that no one in the U.S. or the West knows who Xi Jinping is. It's apparent on Main Street that no knows very much about the next President of China, as seen in the video below.
Keeping in mind that this video is not a formal survey, it should be regarded as a symptomatic sign of the anonymity of Xi in the West — which extends to China experts and politicians alike.
To know who Xi Jinping is and how he will lead the world's most populous nation, one must look carefully at the meager resources on this international man of mystery (as seen in the video above).
Foreign Policy and The Economist both provided excellent articles to explain the character and story of Xi. Xi Jinping is a "princeling" — a select group of CCP leaders whose parents were among the founding generation of Mao Zedong's CCP — as he is the son of former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, a founder of the modern CCP and comrade of Chairman Mao.
Chinese dissidents, like Yu Jie, believe that Xi is nothing more than an "empty suit" because Xi conforms to the "standard behavior" of the previous generation and doesn't believe in advancing human rights in China.
In his own words, however, Xi describes himself as "always a son of the Yellow Earth" due to the many years he served in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution as a rural official. In other words, he thinks of himself as a common man who came from the mostly agrarian society in China, which still makes up for more than half of the country's population.
The important takeaway here is that Xi is a Chinese politician with pedigree and molded by the evolution of the CCP. At the same time, we must consider the fact that Xi has survived some of the greatest upheavals in modern Chinese history through his practical outlook and decision making through consensus.
Cooperation Out of Necessity
To be sure, Xi will not ascend during an era of harmony as intended by his predecessors, Hu and Wen. In fact, his rise comes in a time of social unrest within China — over the growing gap between the wealthy and poor — and potential conflict with its neighbors in the East and South China Seas. In other words, Xi must work with Obama to avoid friction and conflict to relieve the strong pressures he faces — a host of challenges that Kenneth Lieberthal describes as "a much tougher job than Barack Obama" in his second term.
To begin with, his cabinet is not of his choosing, but rather the political choice of the Central Committee, the current Politburo, and CCP elders. Unlike Obama, Xi has far less input on his cabinet than Obama does on his, as the Party dictates via consensus from the top brass. This may well be a "team of rivals."
Xi also faces an unparalleled degree of social unrest among countries who remain strong in the current global economy. The causes are many — including pollution, unsafe working conditions, forced evictions, and most of all corruption within the CCP — which has tate security and local police working overtime to keep protests and acts of dissent.
To compound the complexity of Xi's job, China has just outlined a brand new economic strategy that emphasizes consumer spending and transforming China into a knowledge economy based on high tech industries and research rather than being an agrarian and industrial society.
Xi must also manage a complicated regional security policy with China surrounded on all sides by rivals and client states — including a more active U.S. with its "Asia Pivot."
To be sure, the U.S. has some serious beef with China and vice versa. Obama and the U.S. have complained about China's past currency manipulation and trade practices favoring Chinese export companies and about security concerns with China's neighbors regarding territorial disputes.
Where the Twain Shall Meet
What can Xi and Obama do together? Both men have a host of economic and political issues that the other can be of assistance through diplomacy and compromise that will lighten both men's loads as well as serving the interests of both nations.
First, Xi and Obama can work toward defusing the tensions over Iran's nuclear program by working together to lead Iran to put its nuclear materials and technology to truly peaceful purposes. Both parties have an interest in preventing Iran from undermining the balance of power in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Second, Xi and Obama can work to coordinate or harmonize their economic policies to help their respective economies to be mutually prosperous — including helping the U.S. recover faster, and facilitating China's move to a knowledge-bases economy.
Third, Xi and Obama can work to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan to ensure their respective security interests in the region. There are Uighur militant groups operating in the area with the intent to liberate China's Xinjiang Province.
Finally, Xi and Obama can work to ease tensions between the two countries through continued high-level exchanges between their respective cabinets. Solutions to major problems are unlikely, but troubles can be managed to be resolved down the road.
In conclusion, Xi can be a partner with Obama on a range of mutual security, economic, and political issues. This is all done with all due caution from both sides and based on the national interests of both nations. Both men have a lot on their plates, and their struggles are better handled through cooperation rather than conflict.