Features | Politics | East Asia

Hu’s Almost Harmonious Visit

After a tense 12 months in US-China ties, Barack Obama and Hu Jintao appeared to get the largely incident-free visit they both wanted.

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).

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It wasn’t all cosy agreement, with two of the most contentious issues between the two nations—human rights and economics—both being raised in public and in private. On the eve of Hu’s visit, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid publicly described Hu as a ‘dictator’ to a reporter, though he quickly sought to backtrack from this word choice. Meanwhile, in his welcoming statement, Obama defended the universality of human rights and called on Beijing to engage in direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Obama also said that he raised the case of Liu Xiaobo, who is languishing in a Chinese jail serving an 11-year sentence after calling on the Chinese government to introduce a multi-party democratic system. (Obama could hardly do otherwise, since Liu is his immediate successor as Noble Peace Prize recipient). And Obama and other White House representatives claimed they were even more blunt with Hu and his entourage in their private meetings, particularly over the issue of human rights. But, as Obama said at the two presidents’ one joint news conference during the trip, they decided not to let their differences on human rights or other questions ‘prevent us from co-operating’ on issues of mutual concern.

Before Hu’s arrival, senior US officials had delivered several high-profile speeches denouncing China’s economic policies. For example, they accused the government of manipulating the value of the Chinese currency by keeping the yuan (officially known as the renminbi) artificially low to boost Chinese exports. In addition, they charged the Chinese government with unfairly restricting US imports into China including through the misuse of administrative controls, technology transfer requirements, overt and hidden government subsidies to favoured Chinese companies and other practices designed to privilege domestic firms. They also censored Chinese firms for allegedly stealing billions of dollars worth of American intellectual property and violating US copyrights, leading Chinese consumers to purchase domestic knockoffs of American-made high-tech products rather than their more expensive, if genuine, US originals. In a meeting with US executives at the White House, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s Chief Executive Officer, told Hu that only one in ten users of his company’s software had actually paid for their obligatory Microsoft license.

Democrats and Republicans alike have sought to imply that these Chinese practices are responsible for what Washington calculates to be a $270 billion bilateral trade deficit with China as well as, less plausibly, the stubbornly high US unemployment rate, which remains above 9 percent despite the Obama administration’s expansionist policies.

In his welcoming address at the White House, Obama said he stressed to Hu ‘that there has to be a level playing field for American companies competing in China, that trade has to be fair.’ In contrast, Chinese officials have implied that many American economic wounds are self-inflicted and down to US government policies that encourage spending rather than savings. They’ve also protested US policies that continue to restrict technology transfers to China and Washington lobbying of its European allies to maintain their arms embargo on China, which Chinese policymakers consider humiliating.

Perhaps more awkwardly, Hu reportedly suffered a contentious (though private) exchange with members of House and Senate on Thursday in a closed-door meeting. Some of the members boasted about confronting Hu over China’s military, economic and human rights policies, with forced abortions under China’s one-child policy being a prominent topic of confrontation. Others, however, lamented that the format of the meeting made direct dialogue difficult and encouraged speechifying, including a 20-minute response by Hu to a question posed by House Speaker John Boehner about Chinese commercial practices. The reality is, though, that dialogue likely would have been constrained in any case since the Chinese are well-aware of American concerns.

The public sessions were generally more harmonious. During the summit news conference, Hu overcame a difficult moment when it looked like he was ignoring a question on Chinese human rights practices by later answering the question after it was repeated. His response was more direct than in the past, and he acknowledged that ‘a lot still needs to be done’ but that China would take time to make further progress on an issue that was also shaped by the ‘national circumstances’ of each country.

In the realm of economics, Obama announced about 70 export agreements with China worth $45 billion, including a massive order for 200 Boeing aircraft worth an estimated $19 billion as well as deals with Alcoa, Caterpillar, General Electric, Honeywell and Westinghouse for various agriculture, energy and transportation products.

Although many of these transactions had actually been negotiated earlier, the White House calculated they’d still support 235,000 American jobs. Hu didn’t give any indication of being willing to make major changes regarding Chinese policies on any issue, but avoided commenting in public on divisive issues such as the value of China’s currency or repeat his pre-summit interview complaints about the inflationary effects of US fiscal and monetary policies, which has seen the US Federal Reserve pump billions of dollars into the American economy in an effort to galvanize a recovery from the recession. Instead, Hu tried to underscore China’s positive role as an investor and job creator in the United States by travelling to Chicago and visiting a Chinese auto-parts manufacturer there.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Probably by design, Sino-American military relations weren’t a major issue during the trip, and one reason Chinese policymakers finally decided to invite Defence Secretary Robert Gates to China two weeks before Hu’s trip was to reduce attention on the perennial divisive issue of bilateral military relations. In his only public speech, delivered at the end of his stay in Washington, Hu denied that his country’s growing economic and military strength posed a threat to the United States or other states. ‘We will remain committed to the path of peaceful development, continue to strive for a peaceful international environment to develop ourselves, and uphold and promote world peace through our own development,’ Hu told a luncheon co-hosted by the US-China Business Council and the National Committee on US-China Relations. ‘China stands for peaceful settlement of international disputes and hotspot issues, and we follow a national defence policy that is defensive in nature. We do not engage in an arms race or pose a military threat to any country. China will never seek hegemony or pursue an expansionist policy.’ Through these statements, Hu reaffirmed one of the main theme of his presidency—that China seeks ‘harmonious’ relations with all its neighbours.

Although Hu tried to avoid a public confrontation over human rights, economics and military security during his state visit, he did depart from his harmonious tone when discussing China’s territorial integrity. He insisted, for example, that bilateral political harmony would prevail only if Washington respected Beijing’s position regarding Tibet and Taiwan, stressing that such matters ‘concern Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. They touch upon the national sentiments of 1.3 billion Chinese.’ He also urged China and the United States to ‘treat each other with respect and as equals and handle major sensitive issues in a proper manner.’

Hu’s comments came after Obama had said that, ‘We welcome China's rise’ but only if it ‘reinforces international norms and international rules, and enhances security and peace—as opposed to it being a source of conflict within in the region around the world.’ Some commentators found such language condescending, and it’s unclear how important Chinese leaders consider US approval of their international role. Still, Obama’s words represent the prevailing view in Washington—China’s economic and military rise may be benefiting the Chinese people economically, but for the international community it has been, at best, a mixed blessing. In fact, only the previous week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was unable to give a clear answer when asked on ABC TV whether China was a friend or foe of the United States. ‘This is not a relationship that fits neatly into the black and white categories like friend or rival.’

Interestingly, neither Hu nor any other Chinese leader reaffirmed Beijing’s earlier statements about the South China Sea being a core national interest, suggesting that the sustained US pressure during the past few months, combined with the push-back from ASEAN countries, has prompted Chinese officials to back off from their earlier contentious rhetoric regarding their claims of sovereignty to that entire body of water. And, following private complaints from Taiwan, Indian and other Asian leaders, the Obama administration managed to accomplish a difficult thing in diplomacy—taking back earlier perceived concessions.

The communiqué released after the November 2009 presidential summit in Beijing included language acknowledging China's ‘core interests’ in Tibet and Taiwan and calling for greater Sino-American ‘communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia.’ This time around, though, no such language about either region appeared in last week’s joint statement (although Hu made sure to reaffirm China’s position regarding Tibet and Taiwan in his public speech).

The implications of the Hu-Obama summit for other East Asian countries should become at least a little more evident over the next week when Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg leads a team of US officials to the region to brief allies on the results. In the meantime, though, it’s pretty clear that the summit was as much as anything an act of strategic mutual reassurance between two aspirants for East Asian hegemony.