Exactly 40 years ago, Richard Nixon landed in China for the beginning of a seven-day state visit that was quickly dubbed “the week that changed the world”. It probably didn’t, but it certainly had long-lasting effects on the delicate balances of power of Cold War diplomacy. The visit, which had been carefully prepared by Henry Kissinger and his team, quickly became engraved in pop culture thanks to iconic photographs of Nixon eating with chopsticks next to Mao and of the entire delegation admiring the Great Wall.
Fast forward 40 years and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping just completed a five-day visit to the U.S., with stops in Washington, Los Angeles and, quite astonishingly, Muscatine, Iowa. This time there were no memorable photo ops, besides one of the man slated to become the next Chinese president driving a tractor. But Xi did more than that: he captured the soul of a small town that had hosted him 27 years ago when he was a provincial public officer on an agricultural mission. On display were his characteristic smile and his apparently affable personality, which have quickly become part of his public image. (And Xi knows the importance of collective imagination quite well, married as he is to one of China’s greatest pop singers.)
Kenneth Lieberthal, a seasoned former White House advisor and China expert at the Brookings Institution, got it right when he described it as a get-to-know you visit. “This is a man after all who may well govern China from October this year until October 2022. And he was dealing with a man, in President Obama who if he is re-elected, will govern the United States until January 2017. The quality of the personal relationship of these two people goes to the extent that they feel they understand the other person’s concerns, priorities, and frankly credibility,” he said to Singapore’s Channel News Asia.
Now Latin America is also waiting to reap the benefits of establishing a close relationship with Xi. Nixon’s visit came at a time when Latin America was beginning to look toward China. Argentina and Mexico both established diplomatic relations with China exactly the week before Nixon’s arrival in Beijing. Peru had done it two months earlier and only Chile had done it before that. Brazil soon followed. But it took more than three decades for trade—or diplomatic relations—between the two regions to grow to significant levels.
Enter Xi Jinping. With Beijing already first or second trading partner of countries like Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Uruguay, the region is more aware than ever of the importance of forging strong ties with the Chinese leadership and the challenges of strengthening economic exchanges beyond commodities and mining.
As vice president he visited several countries in the region: Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil during a trip in February 2009 and Cuba, Chile and Uruguay in July 2011. His visits to the region were just as affable as his historic stop in Muscatine: For example, Xi arrived in Cartagena wearing the traditional politician’s suit, but quickly abandoned it and appeared the rest of his trip donning a traditional Colombian guayabera, a white linen shirt commonly used in the Caribbean.
Latin America has already had these get-to-know you encounters with Xi. The region now needs to build on them successfully, for photo ops like Nixon eating noodles and Deng Xiaoping wearing a cowboy hat only become iconic if the visits that provided them are followed up. And this involves more than diplomacy and smiling.
*Andrés Bermúdez Liévano is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Beijing, China, and is the Spanish edition editor-in-chief of China Files, a Beijing-based editorial agency writing in-depth reports and articles from and about China for Latin American and Italian media.