Muscatine, a small town along the Mississippi River in Iowa, made headlines in February 2012 when Xi Jinping, then China’s vice-president, arrived to see “old friends” he had first met 27 years earlier.
Xi joined dozens of local people for tea at the home of Sarah Lande and spoke of fond memories of his 1985 trip – his first to the United States – as head of an agricultural delegation from Zhengding county in Hebei province.
“You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with,” he told them. “To me, you are America.”
That 2012 visit, widely covered in the US media, was the first time many in the United States had heard of Xi. Later, he became general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and Chinese president.
“We’re very honored and proud to have the president of China call us old friends,” Terry Branstad, former Iowa governor and now US ambassador in Beijing, said in 2015. He met with Xi in 1985 and 2012.
Building personal links
As a member of a new generation of Chinese leaders, Xi has not only shown a firm belief in building people-to-people ties, but also in establishing personal relationships with US leaders.
In June 2013, less than three months after taking office, Xi traveled to Rancho Mirage in California for a two-day “shirt sleeve summit” with Barack Obama, who had started his second term as US president that year.
During their talks, they shared their respective visions and agreed that positive China-US relations are good not only for their countries, but also the world. Both described the bilateral relationship as the most consequential in the 21st century.
Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institution, said after the summit that it “met its primary goal of deepening the personal relationship between the two, and in charting a way forward on the key issues of their bilateral relationship”.
At Rancho Mirage, Xi assured the US and the world of China’s determination for peaceful development, and proposed a new type of major country relationship based on nonconfrontation, nonconflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.
The proposal was made at a time when the US, hit hard by the 2008 global financial crisis, was concerned about its decline compared with other nations, particularly China. Speculation was rife about a rivalry between the established power and a rising power, known as the Thucydides Trap, which refers to the war between ancient Athens and Sparta.
China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010, and four years later, the International Monetary Fund reported that the country had surpassed the US as the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity.
“With China continuing to gain economic strength relative to the US, the incumbent superpower undoubtedly feels under pressure,” Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center, said last year in an examination of China-US relations during Obama’s eight years in office. “The two countries must continue adjusting to this new reality and seek balance in their relationship.”
Many US experts applauded the new type of major country relationship as China’s effort to avoid the Thucydides Trap.
David Lampton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, praised the concept, saying “Beijing and Washington must take steps in several domains to build a major-power relationship in the 21st century that is not premised on conflict”.
When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Beijing in March, he said bilateral relations were “very positive” and “built on no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions”, a reflection of the deep influence of Xi’s proposal.
Shen Dingli, associate dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, praised Xi for the concept. “Xi has aspired to make a more equal bilateral partnership between China and the US. What he has termed as a new type of major country relationship intends to present a mutually respectful and beneficial relationship, which more or less has been on the track.”
Ties in the Trump era
Like his informal summit with Obama in California, Xi has tried to build personal ties with US President Donald Trump. In their first face-to-face informal summit in April at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Xi told Trump that “there are 1,000 reasons to make the China-US relationship a success, and not a single reason to break it”.
Trump has praised the Chinese president on multiple occasions, and he said he will try to build a good working relationship with Xi.
The mood looked cordial as Trump’s 5-year-old granddaughter Arabella, the daughter of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, sang in Mandarin and recited a Chinese poem for Xi and first lady Peng Liyuan.
Li at the John L. Thornton China Center said Xi values personal ties with his US counterpart. While many analysts emphasize the differences between Xi and Trump due to the contrasting cultural and sociopolitical environments in which they grew up, Li said they have far more in common, citing Xi’s desire to fulfill the Chinese Dream of a rejuvenated nation and Trump’s aim to “make America great again”.
Trump has shown support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, sending a delegation to Beijing in May to attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
Meanwhile, the countries have concluded the inaugural four comprehensive dialogues announced by Xi and Trump at the Mar-a-Lago summit – a diplomatic and security dialogue, economic dialogue, law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue, and social and people-to-people dialogue.
Cui Tiankai, Chinese ambassador to the US, said the two leaders have set a constructive tone and pointed the way forward for bilateral relations at their meetings at Mar-a-Lago and in Hamburg in July.
Trump’s planned state visit to China in November is expected to “take the China-US relationship to a new level”, he said.