After a two-week unexplained absence, Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and presumptive next leader, is back. In his first announced appearance with a foreign visitor, Xi, 59, met with visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Sept. 19 in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. (Xi first appeared in public on Sept. 15 at the China Agricultural University in Beijing.)
A healthy looking Xi told Panetta that his “visit will be very helpful in advancing the state-to-state and military-to-military relationship between our countries.” On Sept. 18 in Beijing, Panetta announced that the U.S. is ready to invite a Chinese ship to participate in a planned naval exercise near Hawaii in 2014.
The meeting appears aimed in part at reassuring a world that feared Xi had suffered either a severe back accident—maybe from swimming or soccer—a heart attack, or perhaps was ensnared in difficult backroom negotiations related to China’s upcoming leadership transition.
Xi’s meeting with Panetta has particular significance at this time, says China watcher and author Orville Schell, who also serves as director of the New York-based Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. While absent from public view, Xi cancelled a Sept. 5 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And given the relatively fragile state of Sino-U.S. relations, Panetta’s meeting was important in demonstrating that Beijing still wants to discuss thorny bilateral issues that include trade disputes over solar panels and auto parts, preventing nuclear proliferation in North Korea, and fighting climate change.
“It is very hard to make progress on these issues facing the U.S.-China relationship. If you have cancelled meetings as well, it suggests we are not just standing still, but have retrograde motion,” says Schell in an interview at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in downtown Beijing. “That, coming at a time when contradictions are sharpening between the U.S. and China, would not be a good thing.”
Equally daunting to the two countries: the closeness of the U.S.-Japan relationship, as evidenced by Panetta’s visit to Tokyo just before his arrival in Beijing. China’s difficult relationship with its island neighbor, dating back to Japan’s occupation of China during World War II, is at a particularly volatile stage. Chinese have been protesting, sometimes violently, over Japanese control of the disputed East China Sea islands, called Senkaku, or Diaoyu in Chinese, and Japanese businesses have been targeted and vandalized by demonstrators in China.
“I understand the deep wounds that China suffered during World War II, and nobody understands those wounds better than the U.S. because the U.S. also suffered deep wounds,” Panetta said to Chinese military cadets on Sept. 19 after meeting Xi. “At the same time, we can’t live in the past, we must live in the future.” The U.S. should remain neutral in the China-Japan dispute, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said the same day speaking at a press briefing.
Along with Xi’s recent mysterious disappearance, the protests—at least in part encouraged by the Chinese government through state-controlled media—have fostered growing unease that the upcoming leadership transition may not go as smoothly as was once predicted.
Adding to worries is that the dates of the Party congress, which will reveal China’s new top leaders (the seven or nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo) have not been announced.
“All this suggests a much deeper level of friction amongst the leadership than we have seen in China before,” says Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of Beijing-based equities analysis firm J Capital Research and a resident of Beijing for almost two decades.