Today, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden arrived in Asia for his first-ever official trip to China (along with forays to Mongolia and Japan). While tensions between Washington and Beijing have been strained lately by the U.S. government’s debt woes, Biden’s visit is likely to be a smashing success. Sure, Beijing officials—jittery about their nation’s enormous investments in U.S. Treasury securities—will no doubt prod the Veep on economic issues. But the real purpose of the visit, as Beijing sees it, is to stage an elaborate welcome for Biden so that China’s own Vice President Xi Jinping will receive a similarly warm reception this fall, when he visits the U.S.
Xi is little-known outside his home country, but he’s the man to watch in China right now. He’s slated to take over the top Communist Party post next year, and is expected to inherit the presidency from Hu Jintao in 2013. The son of a famous senior official who held much sway during China’s early days of quasi-capitalism reforms, Xi is a so-called “princeling” by dint of his high-profile communist father. But Xi also has gained a reputation as a “man of the people,” dating back to his teenage years when he went sent to a rural village in Shaanxi province to work as a manual laborer (a common practice for educated youth in that period). Up to this point, Xi has kept a relatively low profile, even at home: for many Chinese, his celebrity wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan, is much more famous than Xi is.
For Chinese vice presidents, a picture-perfect official U.S. visit has become tantamount to an international “coming out” party—and Xi is no different. This will be a source of great leverage for Biden: Beijing officials are desperate to pull out all the stops—including treating visiting U.S. officials like ultra-VIPs—to ensure that Xi’s U.S. welcome will be as auspicious, auguring a successful future tenure in the nation’s top job. On Thursday, as Biden’s official host, Xi is slated to officiate over a welcoming ceremony for the vice president, and will accompany him to the southwestern city of Chengdu over the weekend, where Biden is set to deliver a speech at Sichuan University on Sino-U.S. relations.
Biden’s entourage is well aware of Beijing’s desires. “One of the primary purposes of [this] trip is to get to know China’s future leadership, to build a relationship with Vice President Xi, and to discuss with him and other Chinese leaders the full breadth of issues in the U.S.-China relationship,” said Biden’s national-security adviser, Tony Blinken, in a media conference call. He said Biden’s trip was a crucial part of “investing in the future of the U.S.-China relationship.”
One thing that’s bound to stand out during Biden’s visit—and during Xi’s visit this fall—is the fact that ties between America and China are more intertwined than ever. It’s arguably the most important bilateral relationship on the planet, and both sides seem keen to keep a cordial tone to talks over hot-button issues such as U.S. debt, Afghanistan, and North Korea. For China’s part, it worries that the recent U.S. debt-ceiling deal does not adequately address the need to trim the U.S. deficit. (China is Washington’s largest foreign creditor, holding more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt.) American authorities, meanwhile, hope that China will allow its currency, the yuan, to rise in value faster vis-à-vis the greenback. In theory, this will boost Chinese purchasing power and thus bilateral trade. The two countries are also keen to discuss security in China’s volatile backyard, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the nuclear-armed Korean Peninsula.
While discussions about the health of the U.S. economy will no doubt take up much of Biden’s time—with the U.S. vice president prepared to reassure his hosts that America is serious about putting its house in order—Chinese officials will be quietly obsessing over the pomp, as well as the substance, of the visit.