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Monday, 5 October 2015

A new era for world powers

Meeting of minds: Xi talking to Obama during a high-level ‘Leaders Summit on Peacekeeping’ during the 70th session General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York. — EPA

THE visit last week by President Xi Jinping to the United States was significant on many levels. It will take months, perhaps years, to fully gauge its implications, but it is not too soon to make some preliminary remarks.

While the main focus was on the fact that it was a full scale state visit with all the trappings, the programme actually comprised three legs: a high-profile meeting with US business leaders in Washington State; the formal state visit in Washington DC including meetings with President Barack Obama; and a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

On the first leg, Xi assured the US business community that China would remain open to them – as a market for their products and services, as a destination for their investments, and as a source of the goods US consumers want. The underlying message was a very important one: China is now fully plugged in to the global economy, and intends to remain so forever.

The second leg was more notable for the pomp and ceremony rather than for its tangible achievements. There was a Guard of Honour to be inspected, a 21-gun salute on the South Lawn of the White House, a full-scale state dinner plus several meetings with Obama in greater or smaller groups, and even a “private” stroll in the garden.

The third leg saw Xi in the role of international statesman. His measured address to the world body included a pledge of US$2bil (RM8.82bil) to help poorer countries to develop, and the promise of debt relief to those governments who are most hard up.

All high-profile visits of this type have three distinct audiences – one in the host country, one in the home country, and one in the international community at large.

It is probably fair to say that the public in the US took more interest in the coincidental visit of Pope Francis. Then just when the focus began to swing back toward the Chinese leader, the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner announced his resignation and briefly captured the headlines.

Nonetheless, it is the visit of China’s president that will have left the more enduring and deeper impression, especially with the audience that matters most in politics, the media and commerce. The sight of the titans of US business queueing up to greet him on arrival in Seattle, Washington, will linger, as will the mutual respect shown during the formal proceedings, and the heavyweight address to the UN. All these have raised China’s profile with the US people.

For Obama, the visit required the striking of a delicate balance. His overriding priority during the next 16 months is to preserve the main items of his legacy, in particular the Iran nuclear deal and the affordable healthcare legislation.

That means, if possible, he must try to ensure that another member of the Democratic Party succeeds him. If the Republicans were to take the White House and maintain their majorities in both houses of Congress, they could do a great deal to undermine his achievements. The audience back home in China cannot fail to have been impressed. There was the president rubbing shoulders with Bill Gates, Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg – all household names – who could not wait to greet Xi. Similarly, officials at all levels will have got the message that engagement with the US is inevitable and needs to be handled pragmatically. Recognition for Xi as a major player in front of the UN added further luster.

Other nations around the world will have seen the same events as people in the US and China. Government leaders in Tokyo, Seoul, Pyongyang, Canberra and other capitals will have to factor in the developments in Sino-US relations to their own policies and strategies going forward. The world has changed and a new era has begun. - China Daily

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