President Obama will seek to enlist China’s help in steering North Korea away from developing more nuclear weapons when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the White House this week, trying to seize on Beijing’s “fulcrum of influence” over Pyongyang’s reclusive regime.
But Mr. Obama will toe a firm rhetorical line on a range of issues “where we disagree” — most notably on accusations that China employs an army of hackers tasked with stealing secrets from the U.S. government and business sectors, National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice said Monday as she previewed Mr. Xi’s visit.
“We reject reductive reasoning and lazy rhetoric that says conflict between the U.S. and China is inevitable,” Ms. Rice said in remarks at George Washington University, asserting that the relationship between China and the U.S. is “the most consequential in the world today.”
Mr. Xi’s first official state visit since taking control of the Chinese Communist Party and ascending to the presidency risks being overshadowed by the recent plunge in China’s stock market, China’s military expansionist posture in Asian waters and biting Western accusations that China engages in state-sponsored cyberespionage.
He arrives in Seattle on Tuesday, and his trip will feature the national salute of 21 guns on the White House lawn and a state dinner after talks with Mr. Obama on Friday.
China’s “state-sponsored, cyberenabled economic espionage must stop,” said Ms. Rice. “This isn’t a mild irritation; it is an economic and national security concern of the United States.”
It remains to be seen whether the harsh language alone will have an effect.
The Obama administration has repeatedly signaled that it will hold off on hitting China with economic sanctions in response to a spate of hacking incidents, frustrating Republicans who feel the president has failed to hold the communist regime accountable.
The Xi government has denied any involvement in the hacking, the most prominent of which occurred in April and May, when personal data of millions of U.S. federal employees were penetrated. The Obama administration has not publicly blamed Beijing, but U.S. officials have privately said the hackers were based in China.
With that as a backdrop, analysts have speculated in recent weeks that the White House may be aiming to ink a formal agreement or joint statement with China condemning such hacking while Mr. Xi is in Washington.
State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday that he did not want to “get ahead of the agenda of the visit, but obviously … cybersecurity will be among the topics discussed.”
Separately, Ms. Rice said Mr. Obama plans to call on Mr. Xi to push forward with economic reforms in Beijing that could “level the playing field for foreign firms, reduce barriers to trade and unleash [China’s] massive domestic consumer potential.”
“China’s economy has gotten too big to rely on an export-driven growth strategy, and we’ll continue to insist that China refrain from competitive currency devaluation,” she said. “We want a future where businesses in China succeed or fail on their merits, without discriminatory subsidies or markets that are closed to competition. We want a business climate where intellectual property rights and trade secrets are respected, not stolen.”
“As the world’s second-largest economy, China’s actions reverberate through the global financial markets,” said Ms. Rice, referring to the plunge across Europe and Asia last month after the Shanghai Composite posted its worst single-day drop since 2007.
Mr. Xi likely hopes his visit might restore U.S. confidence in China’s economy. On Tuesday, the Chinese president will visit the state of Washington, which exports more to China than any other U.S. state. It sent more than $20 billion in airplanes, wheat, apples and other products to China last year. Redmond-based Microsoft, Seattle-based Amazon.com and Boeing are among the companies lining up to capitalize on Mr. Xi’s visit.
But there’s also a key domestic political nuance behind the Seattle stop. David Bachman, a China researcher at the University of Washington, told The Associated Press that Mr. Xi aims to “convey back to the Chinese audience that, see, Western firms — the biggest Western firms — are still anxious to do business with us.”
Ms. Rice said deeper U.S.-Chinese economic engagement is good for both sides.
“Since President Obama took office, our exports to China have nearly doubled, and China is now the third-largest market for American-made goods, following Canada and Mexico,” she said, adding that Chinese investment in the U.S. has also surged.
She pointed to an increase in the number of U.S. visas issued to Chinese travelers, from less than a half-million in 2009 to more than 1.7 million last year. “The average Chinese tourist contributes more than $7,000 to the U.S. economy when they visit,” said Ms. Rice. “That adds up.”
Her tone was notably less exuberant on the issue of Beijing’s military muscle-flexing in Asia.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington recently circulated a series of satellite images purporting to show Chinese construction of a third airstrip in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The potential runway would be just 21 nautical miles from the Philippine warship BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era tank landing ship that was grounded by the Philippines in 1999 and became an outpost for a contingent of marines. Chinese coast guard ships have reportedly tried to block Philippine resupply convoys to the Sierra Madre, and Beijing has been putting pressure on the Philippines to abandon it.
Two other Chinese airfields are said to be under construction in the remote Spratly Islands, which sit at the center of territorial disputes among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior Asia adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Monday that the disputes in the South China Sea are likely to “be the most contentious issue between President Xi and Obama” during Friday’s meetings.
“The Chinese insist that their actions are legal, reasonable and justifiable. They see the United States as interfering in this issue. They say that the U.S. is taking sides,” Ms. Glaser said at an event hosted by the center. “Chinese I’ve talked to, both civilian and military, say that they have invested very heavily in these artificial islands and they are going to complete their plans.
“The only thing that is potentially up for discussion later on will be about … what kind of deployments in terms of military assets the Chinese are going to put on the islands.”
The Obama administration has appeared less than eager to allow the situation to devolve into a direct confrontation with China — rhetorically or militarily. While administration officials have publicly condemned China’s muscle-flexing, they also have called for disputes to be resolved by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Ms. Rice said Monday that the Obama administration “takes no position on competing territorial claims, but we insist upon and will continue to underscore our fundamental national interest in preserving freedom of navigation and commerce through some of the world’s busiest sea lanes.”
“We call on all claimants to reciprocally halt land reclamation, construction of new facilities and militarization of outposts on disputed areas,” she said. “Instead, we urge China and ASEAN countries to conclude a code of conduct and set clear, predictable, binding rules of the road in the South China Sea.”
But she also stressed that the U.S. is a Pacific power and that American leadership in the region is unmatched.
“The United States of America will sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law permits,” Ms. Rice said.
She also said Mr. Obama won’t shy away from confronting Mr. Xi about China’s human rights record.
“China’s increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly — including their visa restrictions on American journalists — are not only wrong; they are shortsighted,” she said. “They hollow out China’s potential.”
“I raise each of these issues in my meetings with Chinese leaders,” Ms. Rice said. “I assure you that President Obama will be just as direct when he sees President Xi.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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