Hu Jintao’s Upcoming U.S. Visit
January 11, 2011
Q1: What does the United States hope to achieve?
A1: For President Obama, the summit provides an important opportunity to engage China’s president on a broad range of global, regional, and bilateral issues. At the global level, the United States seeks greater Chinese cooperation in countering proliferation of nuclear weapons, reducing imbalances in the global economy, and combating climate change. Regional issues include preventing further North Korean provocations, promoting regional security cooperation in the East Asia Summit, and ensuring that the results of the referendum on southern Sudan are accepted by Sudan and the international community and that the 2005 peace agreement is fully implemented. Bilateral issues that will be raised by the U.S. side include human rights, trade, and the U.S.-China military relationship (see below).
The Obama administration would like some concrete deliverables to demonstrate to the American public that the president’s policy is effective and producing results. A flurry of negotiations has been conducted in the weeks and months prior to the summit to find common ground on issues. Agreements reached at the December meeting of the Joint Commission of Commerce and Trade may be included as summit deliverables.
It is unlikely that a lengthy joint statement will be released since a substantial statement was signed when President Obama visited China in 2009, but it is possible that a shorter statement will be issued that reaffirms both leaders’ commitment to promoting a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive bilateral relationship and to working together on a vast agenda of issues.
Q2: What does China seek to accomplish on this visit?
A2: Beijing is primarily concerned with the symbolic trappings of a state visit, which it sees as being deserved by a Chinese leader. The black-tie state dinner and the 21-gun salute are important signs of respect for Hu to display to domestic observers back in China. The Chinese will seek to avoid such snafus as occurred on Hu Jintao’s last visit to the United States in April 2006, when a member of Falun Gong, a sect banned in China, unfurled a banner and denounced Hu on the White House lawn and China’s national anthem was played but misidentified as that of the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan.
This is Hu Jintao’s last visit to the United States as president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. He will step down in 2012 and transfer the reins of leadership to Xi Jinping. This summit is therefore an important part of Hu’s legacy and provides an opportunity to demonstrate that he has been a responsible steward of the U.S.-China relationship during his decade of leadership. Hu will also want to show that he has defended Chinese national interests.
Sustaining China’s economic growth rate is China’s highest priority because doing so is essential to preserving domestic stability and keeping the Communist Party in power. Hu will seek assurances for Chinese workers and export industries that American markets will remain open to Chinese goods.
On North Korea, Hu will deliver the familiar message that preserving stability on the Korean peninsula is of the utmost importance and that early resumption of the Six-Party Talks is necessary to ease tensions and implement the provisions of the agreements reached.
The Chinese also hope to improve the image of China among Americans. Prior to the U.S. mid-term elections, many political campaigns ran ads portraying China as stealing American jobs, keeping its currency undervalued to promote Chinese exports, and favoring Chinese state companies over American investors. There is also growing concern in the United States that China is building military capabilities that are aimed at preventing the U.S. military from operating in waters along China’s periphery. In Chicago, Hu will tour a Chinese-invested auto parts plant to convey that China is contributing to job creation by investing in the United States. He will also visit a joint U.S.-China clean energy project and a secondary school where Chinese is taught with assistance from the Chinese government, both stops highlighting China’s positive role in the United States. In Washington, Hu will deliver a public speech in which he is certain to reassure Americans that China is committed to a peaceful rise.
Q3: Will the U.S.-China military relationship be discussed?
A3: The week prior to Hu Jintao’s visit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is visiting China (January 10–13) and discussing the bilateral military relationship in detail. It has become increasingly evident that a more robust military-to-military relationship, including more exchanges, more exercises, and deeper dialogue, is essential to ease mutual strategic mistrust between the United States and China. The two presidents will likely review the achievements of Gates’s visit. President Obama will underscore the importance of having a sustained and reliable military relationship that is not prone to suspension every time new tensions arise in the broader U.S.-China relationship. He may also encourage President Hu to establish a new bilateral dialogue on nuclear weapons, space, cyber, and missile defense. Secretary Gates put forward this proposal in Beijing, but his counterpart replied that Beijing would “study it,” which is usually a polite way of saying no.
The United States is especially keen to resume discussions between the two militaries on nuclear weapons policy, which were launched in April 2008 but have not been held since. In April 2006, when Hu last visited the United States, then-President George W. Bush invited China to send the head of the Second Artillery Command to visit the U.S. Strategic Command. The visit has yet to be realized, and President Obama could reissue the invitation.
Q4: What will be the top security issues to be discussed?
A4: North Korea will be at the top of the security agenda (see Victor Cha, “Hu Jintao’s State Visit,” Critical Questions, January 2011).
Iran will also be high on the list. In advance of the January 21–22 meeting in Istanbul of the P5+1—the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—President Obama will stress the importance of maintaining unity among the participants to effectively address Iran’s nuclear program. The United States has praised China for not “backfilling” the investment gaps left by Western companies pulling out of Iran and seeks to ensure that China continues to refrain from new energy investments in Iran.
Maritime security may also be discussed as it pertains to both the East China Sea and the South China Sea. President Obama may seek to stress the importance of principles such as freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, and operational safety at sea.
Q5: What can be expected to be achieved at the summit?
A5: The Obama-Hu summit is an important meeting in a long-term process of expanding U.S.-China cooperation and managing the bilateral relationship. It is unlikely that unexpected breakthroughs will be achieved. As a member of a collective leadership, Hu Jintao will come prepared with a script that he is not apt to depart from. One useful outcome of the visit would be to set a more positive tone for the relationship than existed in 2010 when the United States and China had sharp disputes over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, North Korea, the South China Sea, U.S.–South Korea military exercises in the Yellow Sea, Internet censorship, rare earth minerals, China’s currency, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. A positive message from the two leaders will signal to their publics and other nations around the world that the United States and China are not fated to be rivals and that they are able to cooperate where their interests converge and manage differences where their interests diverge.
Presidents Obama and Hu should seek to set realistic expectations for U.S.-China relations going forward. One reason that 2010 was such a tense year was that the two countries had unrealistically high expectations of what the other could deliver. Another objective should be to eliminate misperceptions and misunderstandings where possible, which could lay the foundation for building greater mutual strategic trust in the future.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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