The Hu-Obama Summit
January 12, 2011
Q1: What is the significance of this summit?
A1: On January 19, Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao will hold their eighth bilateral meeting, but only their second state visit (the others were all brief sessions on the margins of multilateral forums like APEC or the G-20). At the last full-fledged bilateral summit in Beijing in November 2009, President Obama hoped to open a more productive chapter in U.S.-China relations through a joint statement with President Hu noting areas of U.S.-China cooperation and highlighting each party’s “core interests.” In the months after the November summit, however, the administration found itself responding to a noticeably more assertive and less cooperative China. As a result, the administration spent much of 2010 reminding Beijing of the depth of U.S. strategic influence in Asia:
- After China’s passive response to North Korea’s attack on the South Korean corvette Choenan in March, the United States tightened security relations with Japan and Korea;
- In June, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used the annual Shangri-La defense summit in Singapore to highlight the need for greater military transparency from China;
- In July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the annual ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi to stress U.S. interests in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in response to Beijing’s pressure on smaller states in the region;
- In September, the United States reconfirmed its defense commitment to Japan with respect to the Senkaku/Diaoyutai after tensions rose between Tokyo and Beijing over the contested islands.
In short, this has been a rough year for U.S.-China relations; one characterized more by adjusting false expectations than making real progress on issues. Both U.S. and Chinese leaders hope this summit will now lay the foundation for a more productive relationship in 2011.
Q2: Can this summit create a more positive U.S.-China relationship?
A2: Potentially, yes—for three reasons. First, more than with almost any other U.S. bilateral relationship, ties with China rest on the personal connection between the two leaders. This was true when Richard Nixon first opened dialogue with Mao Zedong four decades ago and continued to be the case through the George W. Bush administration. Hu Jintao is essentially a Denghist, which is to say that he views the U.S.-China relationship as the foundational foreign policy issue for China and stable U.S.-China relations as critical for his real preoccupation, which is realization of “peaceful development” and a “harmonious society” at home. This summit will be important to reaffirming the continued legitimacy of Deng’s vision for U.S.-China relations and for Hu’s own foreign policy legacy and expected transition to Xi Jinping in 2012.
Second, summits in the United States are particularly important to Chinese leaders. In preparation for the April 2006 summit with President Bush, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was consumed with (and well briefed on) questions of protocol and optics—to a degree not previously experienced by the Bush White House with any other leader (unfortunately, the disturbance by a Falun Gong protestor masquerading as a journalist at the Hu arrival ceremony set back months of hard work, though the episode was kept away from the Chinese public). It is critical for Chinese leaders that they are portrayed at home as respected abroad. The MFA demands the full menu of flags, gun salutes, and toasts and will settle for nothing less than the honors accorded on the previous leader’s visit. This can tax the patience of the White House, but it also affords tactical leverage in preparing for the meeting’s outcome.
Third, bilateral summits help to put a floor under the relationship. Hu and the leadership are using the summit in Washington to tone down China’s confrontational stance and set a more positive tone before the leadership transition in 2012 (this will likely be Hu’s last official visit to Washington). The approaching summit probably had a lot to do with recent progress on security and economic issues with Beijing, including: (1) Chinese intervention with North Korea to encourage a softer tone toward the South (though South Korean F-15s had a lot to do with Pyongyang’s change of tone as well); (2) moderately successful U.S.-China trade talks in the December Joint Committee on Commerce and Trade (JCCT); (3) a modest appreciation of the yuan by 3.2 percent against the dollar since June 19; (4) a Chinese commitment not to backfill divestment in Iran; and (5) the resumption, for now, of military-to-military talks, including Secretary Gates’s recent visit to Beijing.
Q3: Will this be an historic summit?
A3: Probably not. As important as this summit will be for relationship maintenance, the meeting will not be revolutionary or transformative. The White House will want to show progress without setting expectations too high for three reasons.
First, the two sides are working on a joint statement, but it is unlikely to stand alongside the famous “Three Communiqués” that defined U.S.-China relations over the past four decades. Hu Jintao is essentially a lame duck and not in a position to issue such a lasting vision for the relationship. The previous Three Communiqués were set against a clear common threat from the Soviet Union and were issued by strong leaders in Beijing. It is potentially useful to highlight areas of common understanding and cooperation with China, but verbage in a joint communiqué will not fix the fundamental structural problems in the U.S.-China relationship at this juncture, and efforts to clarify “core interests” can actually backfire.
Second, the adjustments China has made for the summit are almost entirely tactical and reversible. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) refused to commit to enduring military-to-military ties, making it clear that defense relations will be cut off again whenever the United States sells arms to Taiwan. The appreciation of the yuan is not new. There have been previous appreciations and then re-pegging to the dollar. The commitments in the JCCT on intellectual property rights and maintaining open investment opportunity are good, but much will depend on implementation. The statement on North Korea will be vaguely cooperative, but there has been no fundamental change to Beijing’s inherently supportive stance toward Pyongyang. There may be some procedural agreements on discussing human rights, but Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and numerous other prisoners of conscience will remain behind bars in China.
Third, ultimately this summit will not change the structural problems in the U.S.-China relationship and in China’s own internal policy process. The fundamental bilateral challenge is about sharing power with rising states. In the past, the United States has willingly encouraged rising democratic states like Japan and India to play larger roles. It is more difficult with China because of the nontransparent nature of the Chinese system and continued uncertainty about longer-term Chinese intentions. That bilateral challenge is exacerbated by growing internal structural problems in China: namely, the fraying consensus around Deng Xiaoping’s strategic vision; the growing spoiler role of the PLA in Chinese foreign policy; and the prospects of ever weaker political leadership in the transition from Hu to Xi. This summit can help ameliorate those problems—in fact, it is indispensible—but it will not solve them.
Michael J. Green is a senior adviser and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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