President Xi Jinping meets his American counterpart, Barack Obama, tomorrow after stops in the Caribbean and Latin America as the leader of a more confident China following a decade of explosive economic and trade growth.
From Trinidad to Mexico City, Xi presented Beijing as an important partner for developing countries and a source of markets and finance, handing out nearly $4 billion in loans and promising to boost imports.
China's newfound self-assurance stems from an economic expansion that saw annual growth top 10 percent in six of the past 10 years. It passed Japan as the world's second-biggest economy and rebounded quickly from the 2008 global crisis, which still has Western countries limping.
By 2012, China was a bigger trading partner than the United States for 128 countries, while the U.S. was ahead in just 72, according to an Associated Press tally of export and import data gathered by the International Monetary Fund. That is a reversal from six years ago, when the U.S. led in 127 countries, versus just 70 for China.
China's quick rebound from the 2008 crisis on the strength of a multibillion-dollar stimulus helped to reassure its own leaders about the strength of its system.
"There really were questions about whether the Chinese system worked well," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. "But the financial crisis and the sense that the Chinese were able to deal with it more effectively, at least until now, suggests to the Chinese leadership that China's system worked."
One sign of China's confidence may be Xi's itinerary: He meets Obama on Friday and Saturday only after stops in Trinidad, Costa Rica and Mexico and does it in California, rather than pushing for a ceremony-laden White House encounter as previous Chinese leaders did.
That suggests Beijing feels it no longer needs American help to burnish its image and wants to focus on practical matters, Tsang said.
"Xi Jinping is sending a clear signal that, `I've got other priorities that I want to attend to first,' " he said.
Xi's predecessors faced a more uncertain diplomatic outlook. Jiang Zemin spent the 1990s guiding Beijing out of its diplomatic isolation following the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Hu Jintao, who succeeded Jiang in 2002, oversaw efforts to win China a bigger role in the World Bank and other global bodies. Beijing also stepped up its presence in U.N. peacekeeping work after spending the 1980s and `90s following the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping's doctrine of keeping a low profile abroad.
Xi's visit to the Caribbean and Latin America highlights China's growing presence in a region on the U.S. doorstep.
Trade with China is smaller than that with the United States for much of the region, but is expanding faster - an important element for governments that want to find future sources of growth.
Over time, that might prompt emerging economies to see their interests more aligned with Beijing on trade, climate change and other global issues.
"The voices of emerging powers are getting louder," said Chen Yuanting, a Latin America specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an official think tank. "Since the region is an important part of the emerging powers, China is attaching importance to developing relations with the region."
In Trinidad, Xi met leaders of nine Caribbean countries and showed off China's growing financial muscle, promising them loans totaling some $3 billion.
"We really welcomed that generosity," said Trinidadian Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
The money kept flowing at Xi's next stop in Costa Rica, where he promised a $900 million line of credit to finance the possible modernization of an oil refinery.
Moving on to Mexico, Xi and President Enrique Pena Nieto said they would take steps to move toward more balance in their trade. Mexico imported $57 billion in goods from China last year, while exporting only $5.7 billion back.
"With new leadership in China and in Mexico, I think this trip represents an effort on both sides to put the relationship on a new and more positive path," said Matt Ferchen, a Latin America specialist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, in an email.
Other Latin American countries such as Chile and Brazil have profited from selling iron ore, soybeans and copper to China, but Mexico competes with China as a manufacturer and, like the United States, runs a large trade deficit with Beijing.
In a joint statement, Xi and Pena Nieto said Beijing had committed to open its markets to Mexican pork and tequila. Mexico, an oil producer, also could benefit from booming Chinese energy demand.