It will be months, if not years, before the enduring impact of Hu Jintao’s four-day state visit to the United States—the first by a Chinese president in more than a dozen years—will really become evident. This is partly because the most significant discussions between Hu and US leaders occurred in private. But it’s also because the detailed departmental-level dialogue that occurs before and after the summit between Chinese and US officials will anyway likely have a greater impact on how the bureaucracies of the two governments interpret and implement any agreements.
Still, observers seemed relieved that the meeting between the leaders, of what are arguably the two most important countries in the world, occurred without any major incidents.
The two presidents certainly had domestic political incentives to make tough public statements ahead of the summit, but to ensure that any overt disagreements were kept within bounds. After all, the Obama administration is particularly keen to avoid the US-China relationship from becoming a divisive political football in next year’s presidential campaign. The Chinese, for their part, wanted Hu to have more positive visuals than occurred during his 2006 trip to Washington on what will likely have been his last major visit to the United States before he steps down.
And, on the surface, the summit met both Chinese hopes for a smooth visit with no unpleasant surprises and the Obama administration’s desire to smooth over a key bilateral relationship that had been a little bumpy over the past year. The meeting certainly managed to avoid the major gaffes that marred Hu’s previous visit in 2006, when President George W. Bush hosted Hu to a lunch rather than the desired gala state dinner. In addition, the 2006 visit was marred by disruptive incidents including the public heckling of the Chinese president’s speech by a protester from the Falun Gong spiritual sect, while the White House announcer misidentified the Chinese national anthem as being that of the ‘Republic of China,’ which is Taiwan’s official name.
Last week, in contrast, the White House welcomed Hu with the full pomp of a military band and 21-gun salute. Obama hosted the Chinese president to a full state dinner with a glamorous guest list of current and former American presidents, Hollywood movie stars and leading US business leaders. This was all lapped up by the Chinese media, which freely quoted positive reviews of the trip by foreign and Chinese analysts (though it generally ignored the discordant observations that appeared in some editorials and op-eds published in Western papers).