Chinese president Xi Jinping landed in Seattle on September 22 for a weeklong trip to the United States that included his first state visit to Washington and an address to the United Nations in New York. In a joint press conference with President Barack Obama following a meeting at the White House, the Chinese leader raised eyebrows by insisting that Beijing does not intend to militarize the features it has artificially built up in the South China Sea. The two presidents also made announcements on cybersecurity and climate change cooperation, along with finalizing annexes to two military agreements. Observers were left with quite divergent views of the visit. Depending on one’s perspective, Xi’s trip was disappointingly heavy on symbolism and short on substance, or it surprised with important if nascent steps to reduce bilateral tensions and seek areas of cooperation.
In the interviews below, Bill Bishop, author of the popular Sinocism China Newsletter, and Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS, offer their insights into the Chinese president’s visit. You can also explore recent analysis of the visit by experts Christopher Johnson, Xue Chen, and Richard Heydarian, and see how the latest AMTI feature helped frame the South China Sea policy debate in Washington ahead of Xi’s visit.
Xi Jinping Visits the U.S.:
An Interview with Bill Bishop
Author of the Sinocism China Newsletter
Xi Jinping Visits the U.S.:
An Interview with Bonnie Glaser
Senior Adviser for Asia; Director, China Power Project, CSIS
Shifting the Debate
AMTI released its last feature, “Spratly Airstrip Update: Is Mischief Reef Next?,” on September 15, just in time to have a substantial impact on the policy debate regarding the South China Sea within Washington ahead of President Xi’s state visit. The feature included satellite imagery from early September showing that China’s construction of an airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef was nearly complete, providing further evidence of a runway being prepared at Subi Reef, and suggesting for the first time that a third airfield might be planned at Mischief Reef. The images also indicated that despite assurances from Chinese officials that reclamation work at these features had stopped, dredgers were still at work on Fiery Cross and Subi. These images and accompanying analysis by CSIS experts added an important new dimension to debates around the South China Sea ahead of Xi’s arrival. They featured prominently in coverage by the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, and CNN, among others.
The impact this imagery was having on the policy debate became clear during a September 17 Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing with Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear and Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. SASC Chairperson John McCain (R-AZ) and other senators drew attention to the AMTI photos as evidence of ongoing Chinese escalation in disputed waters and grilled the two officials on how the administration plans to respond. They pressed Shear and Harris on why the administration has not authorized “freedom of navigation” operations by the U.S. Navy within 12 nautical miles of features like Subi and Mischief that were submerged before China’s reclamation work and therefore are not legally entitled to territorial waters, leading Harris to admit that he favors greenlighting such operations. Exactly one week later, President Xi Jinping arrived in Washington, DC, with Chinese activities in the South China Sea high on policymakers’ agendas.