Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington on January 18 for a four-day state visit aimed at mending ties and changing the acrimonious tenor of U.S.-China relations. Since last January, relations have deteriorated over a number of issues: U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Chinese cessation of military-to-military communication, concerns over cyber security and Internet freedom, regional tension and competing territorial claims over the South China Sea, the behavior of and response to North Korean provocations of U.S.-ally South Korea, Chinese-Japanese wrangling over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands and China’s ensuing “embargo” on strategic rare earth resources , human rights (including the treatment of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo), as well as host of economic and business-related matters.
If, as is said, ‘in politics, perception is reality’, then the disparate media offensives prior to Hu’s arrival are useful in understanding the image the American and Chinese executives wish to convey to the U.S. audience. The Obama administration seeks to take the tougher tone. Statements by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appealed to China to meet U.S. requests regarding security cooperation, trade and currency, intellectual property and the unfair treatment of foreign companies operating in China, and, what had been the summit’s star issue in Western media, human rights. China, for its part, has sought to disarm American mistrust prior to the summit by producing a 60-second promotional video and a full page insert in a Washington newspaper.
But what has the summit delivered?
President Hu brought his check book, purchasing $45 billion in U.S. goods and speaking with U.S. leaders in the global business community. The joint summit statement calls for “peace and stability” on the Korean Peninsula and expresses “concern regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s claimed uranium enrichment program.” The statement also calls on Iran to fulfill its international obligations under the Non- Proliferation Treaty. Responding to a journalist’s question at a press conference, Hu’s self-critical comment on the state of human rights in China and the need for improvement met with circumspection; President Hu first ignored the question, lied about hearing it , and finally read a prepared response off a manuscript.
While the future of U.S.-China relations appears brighter than it’s past, major obstacles remain for the immediate future. On the Korean Peninsula, the North Korean political regime continues to have geopolitical value for China, acting as a hedgerow between it and a key U.S ally. Iran continues to be a key supplier of energy and a strategic partner. On human rights, the current Chinese political regime will never countenance a free and fair press that is incisively critical of its government. Nor will it allow for the diffusion of Western standards (often perceived as finger-wagging) on how China should treat its citizens. The U.S.-Taiwan arms relationship will continue to be the major issue of contention from the Chinese perspective, especially within the People’s Liberation Army, as it continues to influence Chinese foreign policy. And with Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie’s rejection of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ call for high- level military communication, the PLA looks to remain a step removed from the current thaw in bilateral relations.
All is not doomed. There is a mutually stated opportunity for cooperation on climate change, energy, and the environment, including complementary and competitive opportunities for the development of green technology and green energy. In the economic domain, China has its own demands, including allowing for a greater degree of Chinese investment in America and increasing the import of high-tech goods and technology transfer from U.S. firms in China. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently communicated , there is great opportunity for addressing the concerns and interests of both sides if a mutually beneficial framework can be decided. For instance, where the United States wants intellectual property protection, China wants more high-tech transfers – it would seem China must move first.
There is, therefore, a great deal of both uncertainty and opportunity in the bilateral relationship in the near term: the instability and unpredictability of North Korea, the transfer of power from Hu Jintao to, presumably, Xi Jinping in 2012 , the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, and the current and future state of the U.S., Chinese, and world economies. The next few years will proceed along the same trend line as the year previous – full of strategic maneuvering and mistrust, Chinese military development and assertiveness mitigated by the convergence of economic interests, and a U.S. policy focused on East Asia, including the consolidation of alliances and partnerships and a greater interest in ameliorating the concerns of the business community. If the Hu-Obama summit has brought anything significant to the state of bilateral relations, it is the expectation of a greater degree of civility in the U.S.-China dialogue. It is not the deliverable hoped for, but a welcome, if intangible result.
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