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Superpowers in Shirtsleeves


In 1971, as Henry Kissinger feigned illness in Pakistan to avoid public scrutiny of his top secret trip to China, the most momentous act of diplomacy in years, officials in China were fretting about his plane. Kissinger would be arriving in a Boeing 707, a model of plane that did not normally fly to China. In fact, almost no Western airline normally flew to China. How would Kissinger and the other VIPs get from the plane to the ground? Chinese airports didn’t have the right equipment; the 707s were larger than the Soviet planes found in the People’s Republic. The officials thought it would be embarrassing to buy an airplane staircase from a Western supplier; they didn’t want their country’s technological isolation to be revealed. So they built their own, in a hurry, and rolled it out for Kissinger as if it were the most natural thing in the world. James Fallows relates this story in his book China Airborne.

Forty years later, he writes, another Boeing plane connected China and America. This plane carried then-President Hu Jintao to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington for meetings with President Obama. The plane was the latest Boeing model and was decorated with the logo of the Star Alliance, which connected Air China with global airlines like United, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, and others. “Kissinger’s trip,” Fallows writes, “underscored China’s apartness from the world; Hu Jintao’s its thorough connectedness.”

Yesterday, Hu Jintao’s successor Xi Jinping arrived in California for a “shirtsleeve summit.” His visit underscores how much China’s global influence has grown over the years since Kissinger’s visit. It’s a “meeting of equals,” reports USA Today. The state-run Global Times called it a “milestone” that offers a “glimpse of what China’s future might look like when it catches up with the U.S.” Xi arrives in California after several days in the Caribbean and Central America, where he struck trade and energy deals and deepened China’s growing relationship to countries in America’s backyard. In 2012 China overtook the US to become the world’s largest trading nation as measured by total exports and imports.

The Sunnylands estate where Xi Jinping will meet President Obama is “opulent, even palatial,” but informal enough to encourage frank talk on all kinds of issues: trade, cyber security, North Korea, and territorial disputes, to name a few. Back in China, people are watching closely; people are largely “warm and optimistic” about the summit, a professor at Beijing’s Center for Foreign Strategy Studies told Time. But many perceived the absence of the Michelle Obama as an insult, “an affirmation of deeply held suspicions that Washington does not respect China,” the Washington Post reports.

Indeed, since 2010, Chinese opinion toward the US has become less favorable. According to a poll by Pew, 58 percent held a favorable view of Americans in 2010 but just 40 percent do this year. American attitudes toward China have similarly slipped. Some hope the shirtsleeve summit will improve these numbers. As a senior US administration official told CBS News, Xi and Obama will try to “forge a working relationship that we will be relying on very much in the years to come.” And as Henry Kissinger himself said to the BBC: “I have the impression that both sides are willing to re-examine their premises, and to see whether they can achieve a relationship based on some perspective that goes beyond the moment – in other words that goes beyond solving immediate problems.” The US-China relationship is the 21st century’s most important bilateral relationship; we need them to get this right.

[US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 14, 2012. Image courtesy of Getty Images.]

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