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U.S. is eager to check out China’s future president

By Kevin G. Hallm, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrives in the United States on Monday for a high-profile visit where he’ll be honored as if he were the president of China — the post he’s expected to take next year.

Xi Jinping, 58, is to assume leadership of the Communist Party later this year, a final rung before ascending to the top of the political ladder in March 2013. And with China now firmly positioned as the world’s second-largest economy and closing fast, the relationship between the United States and China has become more important than ever in the past decade.

As such, the eyes of two countries will be on Xi this week as he tries to pass leadership tests on each side of the Pacific.

“The important thing for him is that he shows or increases the awareness that he can work with the America,” said Albert Keidel, a China expert for the Atlantic Council and a graduate professor on the Chinese economy at Georgetown University. “He’ll be doing that in his speeches here, and in his meeting with Obama.”

Just as important, Keidel said, the Obama administration hopes to forge a good relationship with Xi before the U.S. elections this year, in which trade issues with China are likely to flare. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney vows a tougher line on China for alleged currency manipulation, and President Barack Obama has recently increased retaliatory efforts against alleged unfair trade practices.

China’s ambassador to the United States, Zhang Yesui, said the same on Sunday in a meeting with Chinese reporters.

“The year of U.S. presidential election might cause turbulence to many issues including the Sino-US relationship. And Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S .is expected to enhance communication, expand cooperation and ensure greater continuity to the close bilateral ties,” said Zhang, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

In a conference call Friday with reporters, the top China expert on the White House National Security Council, Daniel R. Russel, called Xi’s visit a chance to strengthen an increasingly complicated relationship that is at once competitive and cooperative.

“China is very much a global actor, and as a result, the relationship between the United States and China is increasingly engaged in addressing global challenges,” said Russel, senior director for Asian affairs. “And that points directly to I think the central aspect of our efforts, which is to find ways to cooperate on issues of mutual concern, bilateral, regional and international, because our cooperation has a direct impact not only on the United States and on China, but on the rest of the world.”

Russel and other senior White House officials made it clear that they’re making an “investment” in the Chinese leader, who will have so much face time with administration officials that he’ll all but take the president’s children to school this week.

Xi begins Tuesday by meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, and then Cabinet officials before time with President Barack Obama. He’ll have lunch at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and then go to the Pentagon to visit with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, before wrapping up the day at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

On Wednesday, Xi travels to Iowa, which he visited in 1985 as a low-level government functionary and stayed with a family in the town of Muscatine. He’ll spend time with Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who coincidentally was governor back then. The Chinese vice president will spend Friday in Los Angeles, where he’ll meet again with Biden and visit school children learning Chinese.

That Xi has been to the U.S. interior and is returning sparks hope that he’ll be a more responsive Chinese leader. He’s markedly more personable than China’s current president, Hu Jintao, who has maintained open relations with both the Bush and Obama administrations but isn’t viewed at home or abroad as a particularly warm man.

Who is Xi really? That’s what U.S. leaders hope to learn this week. It’s been two decades since China had a charismatic leader. The last, Deng Xiaoping, stepped aside in 1992. The Chinese leadership structure since has functioned more like a corporate boardroom, with the president as CEO who has to answer to a very engaged board of directors.

“I think he’s worked his way up by making few mistakes … it is a collaborative process, and he is the best positioned now to hold together the collaborative leadership in the consensus system that they have,” said Keidel, who for many years was the Treasury Department’s top expert on China.

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