Reading the tea leaves after the pomp, platitudes, and posturing during the visit of Vice President Xi Jinping of China to Washington DC, Iowa, and California last week turns up little evidence that the mutual suspicion between the U.S. and China has been eased.

China’s vice foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, called it a “trust deficit.”

A China scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Elizabeth Economy, agreed: “Trust is only built over time. It requires clarity of intention, predictability of action, and a willingness to give before taking.”

“And all that,” she argued, “is sorely lacking between Washington and China.”

The Chinese, for instance, demand that they be treated as equals to Americans — except when they see it to their advantage to play down their progress.

Xi’s tour of America was a close mirror image of Vice President Joseph Biden’s journey to China in August. Both had intensive rounds of military reviews, meetings with political and business leaders, and festive meals in the capital. Each took a side trip to the west of the other’s nation. Both visits took about the same time.

A precedent was set by Presidents Jiang Zemin in 1997 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Jiang made a state visit to Washington, Clinton to Beijing. Jiang addressed an audience at Harvard, Clinton at Beijing University. Jiang visited an early American settlement in Williamsburg, Clinton went to the ancient capital in Xian. Jiang was in the U.S. for nine days, the Chinese insisted that Clinton do the same in China.

In contrast, Xi said in Washington that “China is the world’s largest developing country, while the United States is the largest developed country.” The Chinese have long contended they were thus justified in protecting trade and investment, insisting on technology transfers, and grudgingly safeguarding the intellectual property of others.

Xi, son of a guerrilla leader and vice premier, Xi Zhongyun, was careful throughout his visit to toe the party line, for several reasons. Over the last 40 years, he has risen through the ranks of the Communist Party level by staying close to the party’s position.

Second, while Xi is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as party general secretary, president of the government, and chairman of the Central Military Commission late this year, he is not there yet. As any American nominee for a position requiring Senate confirmation will attest, to speak out before taking office could be the kiss of death.

Third, Xi, like Hu and Jiang before him, cannot hope to have the authority of Chairman Mao Zedong, who dominated Chinese politics from 1949 to 1976, or Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader until 1997. The Communist regime in Beijing has evolved into a collective rule in which the top leader appears to be but the first among equals.

In particular, Xi could make no new policy on security or agreements with the U.S. because he does not yet have the blessing of the People’s Liberation Army, China’s armed force and an increasingly independent institution. Among Xi’s earliest tasks will be to cultivate the allegiance of the PLA.

U.S.-China relations got thrown into the U.S. presidential election campaign last week when Mitt Romney, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, tore into President Obama’s China policy in an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal.

Dealing with China, he wrote, “means shoring up our fiscal and economic standing, rebuilding our military, and renewing faith in our values. We must apply these strengths in our policy toward China.”

“Barack Obama is moving in precisely the wrong direction,” the former governor of Massachusetts wrote. “The shining accomplishment of the meetings in Washington this week with Xi Jinping–China’s vice president and likely future leader–was empty pomp and ceremony.”

The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, was asked to respond while aboard Air Force One flying from San Francisco to Seattle on Friday. He asserted that the administration had worked “very constructively” with China.

On Xi’s visit, he said, “we were very candid in our discussions with the Chinese about areas not only where we seek to cooperate in regional and global affairs, but also where we have disagreements and concerns.”

In Beijing, a vigorous debate on China’s relations with American goes on all the time but behind closed doors of the politburo. Vice President Xi can expect to be closely quizzed about what he learned in America but the Chinese people will get only a sanitized version of that report in the press.

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth