China and the World, Talking Point

Hu dunnit…

Will Chinese leader’s trip to America reboot the world’s key relationship?

Hu dunnit…

So near and yet so far: Hu arrives at the White House hoping his trip will lessen friction with the US

Refer in the same sentence to superpower relations and the pushing of buttons, and the image is likely to be a bleak one – of nuclear brinkmanship.

But back in March 2009, Hillary Clinton tried a new approach, presenting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a gift-wrapped “reset” button. “We want to reset our relationship,” she said.

An excellent photo opportunity, of course, but also a problem: the word that the Americans had chosen for their button – “peregruzka“.

“You’ve got it wrong,” Lavrov told Clinton, explaining that the label on his gift actually meant ‘overcharge’.’

Not the kind of mistake that US diplomats will have wanted to repeat this week, as hosts to China’s president, Hu Jintao in Washington – even though the underlying sentiment will be similar, after a rocky period in relations. Did the visit go to plan?

Hu’s been before…

His last trip, to see George W Bush in 2006, didn’t go especially well. For a start it was classed as an ‘official visit’ (less prestigious than a ‘state’ one), which is said to have annoyed the Chinese guests. The mood wasn’t improved when Hu was heckled during a speech, and when an interpreter announced the Chinese national anthem as that of the “Republic of China,” the official name of Taiwan.

But this time around, the Obama administration pulled out all the stops to welcome its 120-strong group of visitors, with an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn complete with traditional 21-gun salute. There was also a formal dinner, inviting government officials from both countries as well as Chinese Americans, corporate executives and others with ties to China. Hu then visited Capitol Hill to meet with leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties.

The itinerary went down well with the Chinese media: “A top-notch reception for President Hu: the White House even did a rare rehearsal [for Hu’s visit]” was China News Service’s approving take on events.

Qu Xing, an academic at the China Institute of International Affairs speaking to the Southern Metropolis Daily, was also pleased. Obama made every effort because he wanted to talk with Hu as a “very good and intimate friend”, Qu thought.

China Daily signalled the event’s paramount status yesterday by devoting an entire half of its front page to a huge photo of Hu making a speech on the White House lawn.

These summits are important?

They can be, yes. Most famously Richard Nixon turned up in Beijing in 1972 to meet an aging Mao, the first formal contact at leadership level for decades (see WiC12). Then Deng Xiaoping made the journey to Washington in 1979, the first leader from Communist China to visit the US. He turned out to be a star turn, donning a ten-gallon hat for a trip to Texas.

Hu is unlikely to opt for similar headgear. But his trip comes at an important time. Relations are generally thought to have deteriorated since Obama’s visit to China in November 2009 (see WiC38), with the Chinese expressing exasperation at the latest round of US arms sales to Taiwan, as well as other diplomatic irritations.

The Americans, meanwhile, have professed concern over Chinese naval activity in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea, the squabbling over the Diaoyu Islands with the Japanese, and continuing differences on how best to handle an unpredictable North Korea. There is also ongoing disagreement on trade and currency policy.

There has been a decline in America’s approval ratings among Chinese audiences, admits the China Daily, which has been surveying its readership on the health of relations between the two countries. But even though sentiment is down on its highest point (shortly after Obama’s visit in 2009), overall “likeability” scores are still up on where they were five years ago, according to the newspaper. The Chinese reaction to the Germans, Russians and French is still warmer, admittedly. But the Americans still do better than the Japanese, perennial poorest scorers in the survey stakes.

So Hu came bearing gifts?

Well, the renminbi has risen to its highest level against the dollar since Beijing restarted its currency realignment last summer. But this is a tried-and-tested tactic from the Chinese, who often let their currency strengthen ahead of major political events, says Reuters (the yuan is up less than 4% since June, critics note).

Hu also brought with him the CEOs of three companies with factories employing American workers (Lenovo, Haier and Wangxian, see page 7) and there has been a headlining “$45 billion” of US business deals with China done this week. A big chunk of that was predictably with Boeing (many of the plane deals were signed in previous years, clarifies the Financial Times. While they did get ‘final’ approval during Hu’s visit, some may detect a bit of smoke and mirrors in the $19 billion figure touted by White House spin doctors).

There were also signs of a coordinated effort to communicate. Hu consented to a rare written interview with two US newspapers and China’s State Council Information Office has been running a commercial in the US (15 times an hour on a giant screen in Times Square, if you’re in the vicinity), as part of a strategy to soften China’s image abroad. The ad (‘Experience China’) is designed to depict Chinese people from different walks of life, reported news portal

Here’s where some perspective is needed, says Wu Jianmin, a former ambassador to France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, who reminded TIME magazine that, not much more than a generation ago, China’s diplomatic initiatives were limited indeed (Albania was the key ally, which was just as well when Chinese envoys were prone to confusion over the use of butter knives, or the wearing of white socks with their suits, he recalls). But now it’s different. Wu told TIME: “We are focusing on our global vision and presenting China to the world”.

One challenge, says the Economist magazine, is presenting that vision with a single voice. Much of China’s “new raw-knuckle diplomacy” stems from a more raucous internal debate on how best to exercise its newfound authority.

In this context: the extensive coverage (in the international media, at least) of the announcement of the maiden flight of China’s new J-20 stealth jet during the visit of US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates (one implication: that China’s military wanted to get its point across). That type of speculation is unlikely to diminish, with the PLA determined to improve its operational capability. Liang Guanglie, China’s Minister of Defence, told state media last month that, despite living in “peaceful times”, China can “never forget war, never send the horses south or put the bayonets and guns away”.

So what was the backdrop to this week’s event?

In the US, national confidence remains at a low ebb, with the public increasingly aware of the shifting balance in international influence. That can lead to overreaction, of course, which was evident again in the most recent polling published by the Pew Research Center at the start of January, in which 47% of American respondents identified China as the world’s leading economic power (31% correctly thought the US was still out in front).

The confusion isn’t new (the Wall Street Journal points out that the US economy is about three times the size of China’s in nominal terms, and its GDP per capita is roughly 10 times bigger). But, even as a misguided assessment, it reflects some of the underlying sense of change. Hu’s comments on an international currency system dominated by the dollar being a “product of the past” fit that mood too.

But it was another Hu sound-bite this week – the call for an end to the “zero-sum Cold War mentality” – that reflected more on the key sensitivities on the Chinese side – talk of Washington’s strategy for “containment” of China’s recent rise.

In fact, Obama can refute the notion easily enough, says Douglas H Paal at the Carnegie Endowment. Simply highlight that the United States has 130,000 Chinese students in America’s best universities, as well as a trade imbalance that it would never have permitted with its former Soviet adversary. Modern-day technology transfers and investment flows are also incompatible with a containment approach, Paal insists.

But Henry Kissinger, a leading orchestrator of the 1972 rapprochement and still on realpolitik form at the age of 87, told the Washington Post that many Chinese remain convinced that the US is intent on blocking the country’s advance. Seeing China’s resurgence as a return to a centuries-old status quo after a brief period of weakness, they also find it grating to be told that China must prove its commitment to a system “designed in its absence on the basis of programmes it did not participate in developing”.

Best to focus on the positives, then?

Paal at the Carnegie Endowment says the lead up to this week’s summit has showed signs of progress. The Gates visit (stealth fighter intrigue notwithstanding) presaged renewed efforts to improve military ties.

A session of the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade in December included advances on intellectual property protection, and there were signs of a thaw in dialogue at climate talks in Cancun in the same month.

The other notable message this week: a lot of talk about finding common ground. Not always easy, says Kissinger, when both countries assume their own national values to be unique, and of a kind to which other peoples aspire.

But when push comes to shove, these visits are always about ‘tone’. And Hu’s arrival did set a more friendly one. TV images of him smiling (a rare sight) as he mingled with crowds in Washington were positive. Perhaps even more significant: Hu agreeing to a press conference (in terms of rarity value this one’s a bit like sighting Halley’s Comet). Standing by Obama’s side he even acknowledged, reported the BBC, that “a lot still has to be done” in China over human rights. As concessions to US public opinion go, that was a huge one for the Chinese leader to make; inspiring the South China Morning Post to run the headline this morning, “Feel-good factor replaces mutual distrust”.

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