New Era Begins

The visit last week by President Xi Jinping to the United States was significant on many levels. It will take months, perhaps years, to fully gauge its implications, but it is not too soon to make some preliminary remarks.

While the main focus was on the fact that it was a full scale State Visit with all the trappings, the programme actually comprised three legs: a high profile meeting with American business leaders in Washington State; the formal State Visit in Washington DC including meetings with President Obama; and a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

In the first leg, President Xi assured the American business community that China would remain open to them, as a market for their products and services, as a destination for their investments, as a source of the goods consumers in the US wanted. The underlying message was a very important one: China is now fully plugged in to the global economy, and intends to remain so forever.

The second leg was more notable for the pomp and ceremony rather than for its tangible achievements. There was a Guard of Honour to be inspected, a 21-gun salute on the South Lawn of the White House, a full-scale State Dinner plus several meetings with the US President in greater or smaller groups, and even a "private" stroll in the garden. Set against this backdrop, the list of some 50 achievements published after the visit seemed more workmanlike than sparkling headline grabbers. The real significance was that the visit and the talks took place and both sides were able to express their concerns and positions calmly. Clearly there were areas where the respective positions are far apart, but all subjects could be and were touched on without histrionics.

Just in case you were wondering, Hong Kong did get a mention: Item 34 on the list of achievements was the setting up here of the headquarters of a new film company, a joint venture between Warner Brothers and China Media Capital.

The third leg saw Xi in the role of international statesman. His measured address to the world body included a pledge of $2 billion to help poorer countries to develop, and the promise of debt relief to those governments most hard up.

All high profile visits of this type have three distinct audiences: one in the host country, one in the home country, and one in the international community at large.

It is probably fair to say that the general public in the US took more interest in the coincidental visit of Pope Francis. Then just when the focus began to swing back towards the Chinese leader, the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner announced his resignation and briefly captured the headlines.

Nonetheless, it is the visit of President Xi that will have left the more enduring and deeper impression, especially with the audience that matters most in politics, the media and commerce. The sight of the titans of American business queueing up to greet him on arrival in Seattle will linger, the mutual respect shown during the formal proceedings, and the heavyweight address to the UN, all these have raised China’s profile with the American people.

For President Obama, the visit required the striking of a delicate balance. His overriding priority during the next 16 months is to preserve the main items of his legacy, in particular the Iran nuclear deal and the Affordable Health Care legislation. That means if possible he must try to ensure that another member of the Democratic Party succeeds him. If the Republicans were to take the White House and maintain their majorities in both houses of Congress, they could do a great deal to undermine his achievements. So it was right for him to ignore the calls from some of the sillier voices for the visit to be scrapped, but at the same time he could not be seen to be weak in the face of what many in America see as a rival power.

The audience back home in China cannot fail to have been impressed. There was their president rubbing shoulders with Bill Gates, Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg – all household names – who couldn’t wait to greet him. Similarly officials at all levels will have got the message that engagement with America is inevitable and needs to be handled pragmatically. All Chinese were given "face" by the Americans when they officially honoured our President. Recognition as a major player in front of the United Nations added further lustre.

Other nations around the world will have seen the same events as the audiences in the US and China. Government leaders in Tokyo, Seoul, Pyongyang, Taipei, Canberra plus other capitals will have to factor in the developments in US-China relations in their own policies and strategies going forward. The world has changed and a new era has begun.