Xi Jinping's Victory Lap in Washington

The decision to host Xi for a state visit and the administration’s moves in the lead-up to the summit have revealed, once again, the ineffectiveness of the administration’s approach to China.

Chinese president Xi Jinping arrives in Washington this week for his first state visit to the United States. There will be plenty on the agenda for his discussions with President Obama, but few important issues where the two leaders will be able to bridge the gap in a significant way.

The decision to host Xi for a state visit—involving a 21-gun salute and U.S. service members standing for inspection before the Chinese leader—and the administration’s moves in the lead-up to the summit have revealed, once again, the ineffectiveness of the administration’s approach to China.

While some have criticized Scott Walker’s call for the visit to be canceled or other candidates’ suggestions that it be downgraded, no one has adequately explained why it is so crucial to fete Xi Jinping in a manner befitting America’s closest allies. The treatment will signal to Xi that he can continue to operate with impunity both at home (where he’s stepped up repression of activists and religious minorities) and abroad (where he’s bullying his neighbors at will). Xi will also use the state visit’s atmospherics as domestic propaganda to bolster his image and his authority. In return for these Chinese prizes, the United States will get…what exactly?

Perhaps realizing the poor optics of hosting Xi Jinping for a state visit in the wake of the OPM hacks and while China continues to build artificial islands in the South China Sea, and finally responding to pressure to do something about Chinese cyberattacks on the homeland, the administration began warning last month that it was preparing sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals that are benefitting from stolen trade secrets. The administration sustained the drumbeat for a couple of weeks, giving the impression that sanctions could come before the visit and thus signaling that, formal honors aside, it was not going to treat Xi as a conquering hero upon his arrival in the nation’s capital.

Then, last Monday, the Washington Post reported that sanctions would not, in fact, come before the visit.

The decision followed an all-night meeting on Friday in which senior U.S. and Chinese officials reached “substantial agreement” on several cybersecurity issues, said the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity.

The potential for sanctions in response to Chinese economic cyberespionage is not off the table and China’s behavior in cybersapace is still an issue, the official said. “But there is an agreement, and there are not going to be any sanctions” before Xi arrives on Sept. 24, the official said…

“They came up with enough of a framework that the visit will proceed and this issue should not disrupt the visit,” the official said. “That was clearly [the Chinese] goal.”

One might argue that the administration put its threat of sanctions before the visit to good use as leverage in negotiations. For its part, China got what it wanted—no sanctions before the visit. But what did the United States get?

According to the New York Times, Washington and Beijing have now made progress on an arms control agreement for cyberspace. Each country, reportedly, will commit “that it will not be the first to use cyberweapons to cripple the other’s critical infrastructure during peacetime.” But such a pledge would be meaningless—neither country is likely to consider itself inhibited by the accord should national interests dictate that a cyber first strike is warranted. When either reaches such a point in its deliberations, moreover, peacetime will have already passed, even if open conflict is not quite upon us.

In addition, per the Post’s reporting from last week:

The agreement reached Friday does not solve the cybertheft issue with China, the official said. “There are still big problems…The question is, after the visit and after [the U.N. General Assembly in late September,] will they resort to their old ways? Or will there be, in fact, real progress?

In other words, the White House seems to have little idea whether or not the “framework” will lead to an improvement in Chinese behavior in cyberspace. Which means that the Obama administration used its leverage to secure nothing of substance.

Presumably, the threat of sanctions will remain, and that should provide leverage for President Obama in his talks with Xi later this week. But given the American president’s seven-year track record of refusing to impose any substantive costs on Beijing for its attacks on U.S. interests, Xi Jinping may be understandably skeptical about the likelihood sanctions are imposed or that they would be particularly biting.

When the summit closes, we can expect some boilerplate language on bilateral points of contention and perhaps even a statement outlining a coming accord on “arms control” in cyberspace. But until China faces significant consequences for its actions—which hasn’t happened on cyber, on the South China Sea, on human rights, —Beijing will simply have little reason to alter its behavior in any of these issue areas.

Pages