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What Does China's Leader Want From The U.S.?

After years of distrust, China's government says it wants a new type of great power relationship with the United States. Chinese President Xi Jinping will begin trying to lay the groundwork Friday at a summit with President Obama in California, but just what kind of relationship does Xi want?

"He wants to challenge the Cold War mentality, which believes that the existing power and also the emerging power cannot have a relationship other than conflictual," says Cheng Li, a specialist in Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The track record of rising powers and ruling ones is not encouraging.

They often end up in conflict: Consider Germany and Britain leading into the first and second world wars.

Diplomatic niceties aside, the world's current No. 1 and No. 2 economies are competitors and sometimes rivals. Washington and Beijing also have big disagreements on everything from Chinese hacking to America's renewed emphasis on East Asia.

Li says one thing Xi, the Chinese president, wants in California is a strong commitment from Obama that the U.S. is not trying to gang up on China with the help of its neighbors, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Li thinks two days in an informal setting — a 200-acre ranch — provides a rare opportunity for the leaders to establish a rapport.

"If he can develop a kind of trust, believe that Obama does not have an evil intention, that will be very, very important," says Li. "Personal ties always carry weight, but it's particularly true in the case of China, because they are so suspicious of the real purpose of the United States."

President Obama will be dealing with a different kind of Chinese leader in Xi. He appears more confident than his recent predecessors, who seemed thin-skinned when criticized by Americans over issues like human rights.

"Xi Jinping's tone is not defensive at all," says Huang Jing, who runs the Center on Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore.

Huang says Xi's message to American criticism so far has been: "Back off. Leave me alone."

Andrew Nathan, who teaches Chinese politics and foreign policy at Columbia University, thinks China sees Obama as weak, because the American political system is so hard to manage.

Another reason, Nathan says, is because Obama came into office presenting himself as a peacemaker, something that makes no sense to Chinese strategists, who have a colder, more realist world view. China's leaders also see themselves in a stronger position today.

"The Chinese economy has grown so fast. The Chinese military budget has grown so fast," says Nathan. "Their strategic vision now is that this is the time to begin to cash in on decades of effort by China to build itself up as a major power."

That said, analysts don't think China's rapid rise is destined to end in conflict. For all their differences, the two nations have some important things in common. Both are actually capitalist countries, though China's formula is a very different one where the state still plays a huge role. Both governments want peace in East Asia and nukes out of North Korea.

Huang Jing of National University of Singapore says this is not a new version of the Cold War.

"It's very fundamentally different," he says. "First, the Soviet Union challenged the entire value system. It's a fundamental struggle: It's either you or me."

"But China tried to integrate into the international community," Huang continues. "China has tried to change itself in order to fit in."

And for all of Xi Jinping's outward self-confidence, he faces more challenges at home than even Obama, which is saying something. They include a slowing economic growth rate, a smarter, more critical public, some terrifying environmental problems and a general uncertainty on how the Communist Party will keep China's spectacular rise on track.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.