- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2013

President Obama called on China’s new president, Xi Jinping, on Thursday and discussed the challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and the importance of addressing cybersecurity threats.

Mr. Obama “highlighted the threat to the United States, its allies, and the region from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and stressed the need for close coordination with China to ensure North Korea meets its denuclearization commitments,” the White House said. He also emphasized the importance of addressing cybersecurity threats, which represent “a shared challenge.”

Mr. Obama called Mr. Xi to congratulate him on being elected president of China.

Mr. Xi faces many challenges of his own, including a slowing domestic economy, simmering territorial disputes with Japan and the threat of an increasingly belligerent North Korea.

China, which provides economic aid to North Korea, has been reluctant to press its ally out of concern that the regime in Pyongyang could collapse and send a wave of refugees into China.

Earlier this month, China, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, backed a fresh round of sanctions to punish North Korea for its Feb. 12 nuclear test.

Mr. Xi, the son of a prominent revolutionary and vice premier, was confirmed as China’s next president in a choreographed transfer of power on Thursday.

About 3,000 deputies to the National People’s Congress voted 2,952 to 1 for Mr. Xi, the sole candidate. There were three abstentions.

Mr. Xi was put on track to become president when he was appointed secretary general of the Communist Party of China on Nov. 15. His election marks China’s second orderly succession since the start of Communist Party rule in 1949.

Mr. Xi succeeds Hu Jintao, who served as president for 10 years.

Li Keqiang is widely expected to be named China’s new premier on Friday. He will replace Wen Jiabao.

Mr. Xi is not expected to make any major policy changes. One reason is that the Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee takes major policy decisions by consensus.

The U.S.-China relationship will continue to be dominated by Chinese concerns over the United States’ “pivot” to Asia, which is widely viewed in China as an attempt by Washington to check its rise; U.S. complaints about China’s undervalued currency; the civil war in Syria; Iran’s nuclear program; cybersecurity; and human rights.

In Thursday’s phone call, Mr. Obama welcomed China’s commitment to move toward a more flexible currency exchange rate, and said it is important that the U.S. and China work together to expand trade as well as address issues such as the protection of intellectual property rights.

The two leaders agreed to maintain frequent and direct communication.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will visit China next week and will be followed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in April.

Born in Beijing in 1953, Mr. Xi is a “princeling,” a term given to children of high-ranking Communist Party officials. He is described by acquaintances as affable and fond of American war movies.

Mr. Xi has visited the U.S. many times. He first came as part of an agricultural delegation in 1985. Most recently, he visited the U.S. in February of last year and met with Mr. Obama; Vice President Joseph R. Biden; and the then-secretaries of state and defense, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Leon E. Panetta, respectively.

Kevin Rudd, who served as prime minister of Australia from 2007 to 2010, said: “I’m not starry-eyed about this, but I believe there is a genuine openness on Xi Jinping’s part to at least explore the parameters not just for a new form of the U.S.-China relationship, a new road map … but more broadly for China to assume more of a what would be perceived to be positive global role.”

Mr. Xi has picked Russia as his first overseas trip as president.

“Xi is telling the world and the people at home, that he’s not in America’s hip pocket and has a different agenda,” Douglas Paal, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a blog post.

One of Mr. Xi’s most pressing foreign policy challenges will be to control escalating tensions with Japan over control of a group of five East China Sea islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. A confrontation between Japan and China could embroil the United States, which has a security treaty with Japan.

Mr. Rudd told reporters Wednesday on a conference call hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations that this territorial dispute is a “difficult balancing act” for Mr. Xi.

But “we should give him the benefit of the doubt on these traditional security and foreign policy questions of trying to take his country in a somewhat more globalist direction,” he said.

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