Warnings Over 'Lack of Trust'

China's leader-in-waiting begins a U.S. visit.

xi-jinping-biden-305 Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (R) poses with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden before talks at a hotel in Beijing, Aug. 19, 2011.

Updated at 7:15 p.m. EST on 2012-02-13 

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping began a four-day visit to the United States on Monday amid warnings that mutual trust was at a new low due to concerns over a potential U.S. military build-up in the Asia Pacific region and a slew of economic and diplomatic disputes.

Chinese official media warned of a potential return to Cold War thinking, should the U.S. continue to fear China's rise and fail to adjust to its newfound economic power as global banker amid the continuing debt crisis.

For Xi, who looks set to take over China's presidency in 2013 from incumbent Hu Jintao following a key leadership transition in the ruling Chinese Communist Party later this year, the visit is the first in 27 years and is crucial if he is to establish his image overseas as a leader-in-waiting.

But he must also successfully project an image back home, as a strong leader capable of defending China's military and nationalistic interests against potential threat or encroachment.

Military presence

Typically, arms sales by Washington to Taiwan are cited as the greatest thorn in Beijing's side which could potentially derail the relationship, but President Obama's recent plans to scale up U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region now seem to have eclipsed the issue in official rhetoric.

In comments published ahead of his trip, Xi warned against a build-up of U.S. military presence on its doorstep.

"At a time when people long for peace, stability and development, to deliberately give prominence to the military security agenda, scale up military deployment and strengthen military alliances is not really what most countries in the region hope to see," Xi said in written and translated comments published in the Washington Post just ahead of his trip.

Beijing appears keen to give the impression that the complex bilateral relationship with Washington could deteriorate into a new Cold War of mistrust, with a series of warnings published in official media ahead of Xi's departure.

"The China-U.S. relationship is encountering severe tests and facing the absence of strategic mutual trust," according to a signed article in the English-language China Daily newspaper on Monday, one of several devoted to Xi's trip.

"As a Chinese aphorism says, 'a boat sailing against the current must forge ahead or be swept downstream.' The relationship is just at this critical juncture," said the article, signed by five foreign policy experts at China's top universities.

The article called for a psychological adjustment in the wake of China's growing international power, citing China's growing international role as global lender in the wake of the financial crisis.

Warning of a nationalistic political elite pushing behind the scenes for a more militarily assertive China, the article said Beijing would resist any attempts to engage on the topic of human rights or political reform.

Human rights

"The Chinese government remains highly vigilant against America's 'export of democracy' and 'human rights diplomacy,'" the article said, adding that "Chinese political elites are frustrated at the appearance that China's security environment does not seem to have improved."

The paper also carried an opinion article by Elisabeth Economy, Asia Studies senior fellow at the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations in New York, who called for a joint project such as a free trade agreement to give purpose to the bilateral relationship.

"The simple truth is that the U.S. and China have had few reasons to celebrate their relationship since China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001," Economy wrote.

She said efforts to cooperate on a wide range of international issues, including North Korea's nuclear program, climate change, and Iran had "fallen well short of full cooperation."

"The result is a bilateral relationship that is characterized above all by uncertainty, mistrust and frequent friction," Economy wrote, citing "profound" differences over the recent draft U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and tensions over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Xi's previous international appearances as vice-president have left some wondering what sort of diplomat he will make.

He is reported to have said in a 2009 speech in Moscow: "Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do like to point fingers at us. China doesn't export revolution...[or] hunger and poverty, or come over there and mess with you, so what have they got to complain about?"

However well Xi's defensive stance on China's human rights record plays out with hard-liners in the Party and the military, it is unlikely to wash with the country's own hard-pushed activists.

Beijing-based veteran pro-democracy activist Zha Jianguo called on Washington to keep up the pressure on Xi over China's worsening human rights record, in the wake of a string of lengthy jail terms handed to activists in recent weeks and continuing self-immolation protests by Tibetans.

"There is also the continuing harshness of controls on culture and on the Internet, and the suppression of mass incidents [of protest]," Zha said.

"A large democracy like the United States should voice its opinions on human rights issues."

He said large numbers of political activists in China were strongly opposed to the Chinese veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria last week.

"The problems in Syria are a clear case of a government which is using violence to suppress protests among ordinary people," he said.

Xi, who once visited the American Midwest as an official in charge of China's pork industry, is scheduled to meet President Barack Obama and other top officials in Washington on Tuesday, traveling on to the state of Iowa on Wednesday to meet local politicians and families with whom he stayed on his 1985 trip.

He will stop off in Ireland and Turkey on the way home.

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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