FOR CHINESE President Xi Jinping, the principal achievement of a summit meeting with President Obama may be the 21-gun salute he is due to receive on the White House lawn Friday. A greeting with full honors by the U.S. president is particularly important to the Chinese ruler at a time when he is still struggling to consolidate power in Beijing and show that he is capable of mastering a corruption-ridden bureaucracy and faltering economy.
Having conceded that rare honor — China is the only non-democracy whose leaders have been treated to a state visit by his administration — Mr. Obama has a more difficult task. He must try to induce Mr. Xi to reconsider the aggressive policies he has embraced, ranging from unrelenting cyberespionage against U.S. agencies and companies to the construction of military airstrips in the South China Sea. For two years, U.S. protests on those issues have been ignored by the Chinese leadership. If this summit meeting does not change that, it’s easy to foresee a downward spiral in relations.
When the two leaders met in California two years ago, Mr. Obama made cyberespionage a focus. But since then, China’s attacks have only escalated, including the stealing of millions of federal employee disclosure statements and the hacking of major technology companies. Like Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, Mr. Xi takes the brazen approach of denying his regime is responsible for the operations despite abundant proof to the contrary. To avoid disrupting the summit, Mr. Obama put on hold retaliatory measures against the Chinese entities involved. But he should make clear that they will go forward once Mr. Xi leaves town, even if the two governments agree on some cybersecurity steps.
The situation in the South China Sea is cause for even greater concern. In proceeding with the construction of airstrips on islets it claims, Beijing is literally paving the way for the use of force to advance its indefensible claim to waters considered territorial by numerous other countries, including Japan and the Philippines. Because U.S. verbal protests and calls for negotiation have failed to arrest China’s behavior, other measures, including sanctions, must be considered. Mr. Obama must puncture Mr. Xi’s apparent conviction that his project will prompt nothing beyond rhetoric from the United States.
Much else in Mr. Xi’s policies is troubling, including his crackdown on domestic dissent, his persecution of lawyers and Christian activists, and a new law that would apply onerous controls to civil society groups, including U.S. universities operating in China. Mr. Obama has had little to say about Beijing’s human rights violations in the past; this would be a good time to reverse that record.
White House officials have been promising that Mr. Obama will have a “robust discussion” about his differences with Mr. Xi, even as they defend the decision to receive the Chinese leader with full honors. They are right that high-level U.S.-Chinese engagement must continue, even at the price of providing Mr. Xi the treatment he demands. But resistance to his policies must move beyond rhetoric.
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