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Xi Jinping's White House visit has implications beyond U.S. border

President Xi Jinping arrives for a state visit in the U.S. on Tuesday, September, 22, 2015.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Like any leader keen on a good impression, Xi Jinping lands in the United States Tuesday with billions of dollars in trade-deal gifts, and a schedule tailored to show a powerful yet accessible leader who will visit high-tech leaders, assembly plant workers, high school students and even a United Nations women's rights conference.

The last time a Chinese president came to the United States for a state visit in 2011, the then-mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, called it a "big, big, big, big. Big deal." The arrival of Mr. Xi is arguably bigger, coming at a time when China's language of goodwill is losing out to fear over Chinese diplomatic hostility, military zeal and economic uncertainty.

The seven-day visit, which will include a formal White House dinner and Mr. Xi's debut address to the United Nations General Assembly, will place a magnifying glass on issues such as cyberhacking and China's perceived belligerence in maritime territorial disputes.

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But even as the trip thrusts Sino-U.S. relations to the fore, it serves as a pointed reminder to other countries that China has changed in ways dramatic enough that old ways of dealing with Beijing are losing effectiveness.

When Mr. Xi was last in the United States in 2013 for a less formal visit, he was in the opening act of his presidency, less sure-footed as a global leader, but still backstopped by an ebullient economy.

He now walks with a sure stride, at his side sympathetic foreign leaders – Russia's Vladimir Putin key among them but also, to a lesser extent, South Korea's Park Geun-hye – whose standing is unlike any enjoyed by a Chinese president in recent years. China's economy, meanwhile, is newly shaky, with growth slowing and a summer of spiralling stock markets that stirred fear over China's financial strength.

The old playbook for dealing with Beijing, in other words, is losing effectiveness – an issue with high stakes not just for the United States, but for the rest of the world, Canada included.

"This is the most important visit of a Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping's in 1979, this time in the context of a China that is richer, more powerful, more influential and a global player," said Paul Evans, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research.

"Academic, elite and public opinion in the U.S. about China is more negative than at any time since Tiananmen Square. Badly managed, the result will be a steady decline from a relationship of strategic competition to a new form of strategic rivalry and Cold War," Dr. Evans said.

Economic issues are also at stake. For years, foreign countries have sought China's favour to boost sales of resources and ease market entry for corporations. In a mad attempt to build its way to modernity, China was hungry for raw material and equally starved for outside dollars.

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This is now being turned on its head. This year marks the first time China is expected to dispatch more foreign investment dollars outside its borders than will come in. Commodity demand has softened alongside slowing economic growth.

In its outward demeanour, meanwhile, China is shedding decades of meekness, replacing it with a swagger the likes of which only Washington could once match – a shift backed by an expansionist economic policy that stands to bring profound change to the way China interacts with the world.

That's true in the South China Sea, where China has paid scant heed to the international outcry over its activities building islands and airstrips, and it's true in Beijing's new-found willingness to knock around foreign companies, which have found themselves under heavy government pressure inside China.

The global expansion of corporate China also gives Beijing "a greater stake in the political and economic order in those countries," said Xie Tao, a professor of political science at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"If something terrible happens – political chaos, civil war – and China's investment is too big, it may be compelled to do something militarily. So China may have to rethink this sacred principle of peaceful co-existence" – an upending of a decades-old pacifist foreign policy that he called "likely" to happen.

What Victor Gao, a director at the China National Association of International Studies, calls Mr. Xi's "guts to stand up firm to defend China's legitimate interests" may actually present an opening for dialogue.

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"By standing firm on matters of principle internationally, this actually not only helps to clarify where China stands, it may actually also help better to resolve international differences," he said.

But if that's true, it may require leaving behind simplistic calculations about China and profit potential. When Stephen Harper was last in China, he talked about selling Canadian cherries to Chinese grocery buyers and swapping loonies for yuan.

Canada would do better "to see China as both an opportunity and a problem," said David Mulroney, president of St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto and former Canadian ambassador to China, who suggests Ottawa needs to recognize Beijing as both partner and rival.

"We will increasingly have to deal with a China that acts as a 'not-so-responsible stakeholder,'" he said.

But Canada's recent retreat from broaching tough issues with China has placed it on a bad footing, Dr. Evans said.

"Canada is a bystander having dealt itself out of a distinctive strategic position with China for the past decade. We can watch but have no influence," he said.

And while China may not factor in the current domestic election campaign – unlike in the United States, Canadian contenders have barely mentioned it – it is likely to demand growing attention in coming years.

"Continued strategic silence is not an option," Dr. Evans said. "The issue is whether we can mount a Middle Power role and find public support for it when attitudes toward China are increasingly cool."

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