Hu’s Visit Highlights U.S.-China Rivalry, Need for Pragmatism
Update: 10:15 a.m. ET, Wednesday Jan. 19
President Obama welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao during a State Arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, Jan. 19, 2011. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
During official welcoming remarks at the White House Wednesday morning, Presidents Hu and Obama emphasized cooperation between the two countries, presenting the visit as a chance to shift bilateral relations in a more positive direction. President Obama said China and the United States have an “enormous stake in each other’s success,” and called for a “spirit of mutual respect.” President Hu reflected the general sentiment, calling for a focus on “important common responsibilities” for “world peace and development.” The two will conduct a series of meetings before a full state dinner, the first for a visiting Chinese leader in 13 years. There will also be a joint news conference at 1 p.m. ET.
Vice President Joe Biden greeted President Hu Tuesday afternoon at an arrival ceremony at Andrews Air Force to kick off the three-day visit. Hu is also expected to meet with congressional leaders Thursday before flying to Chicago for meetings with business groups.
Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Hu Jintao listen to the U.S. national anthem during Tuesday’s arrival ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.
Originally posted Tuesday, Jan. 18
Chinese President Hu Jintao is headed to Washington to meet with President Obama at the White House, a reciprocal visit of sorts after President Obama traveled to Beijing in November 2009. Like the previous visit, the meetings between the two are not expected to produce a sea change in relations between the two superpowers, but rather to iron out pressing concerns on the economy and security issues and set a better tone for the bilateral relationship.
Despite the problems at hand, President Hu said this week in response to questions from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal that the two countries should search for “common ground” despite “differences and sensitive issues between us.” The focus on practical agreement, versus an ongoing impasse on human rights, echoes an agenda largely pursued by both sides in recent years.
The need for pragmatism is also a reflection of security concerns between China and U.S. allies in the region. In the days after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the U.S. , South Korea and Japan were quick to call on China to exert pressure on North Korea, which it heavily supports with aid. China’s response was muted, while South Korea and the U.S. stepped up military drills in the East China Sea. China called for calm and a return to six-party nuclear talks but refrained from condemning the attack. But the visit is unlikely to produce any substantive change on the North Korea issue, according to many China watchers. The two countries have “divergent agendas,” says David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. “The only thing we can agree on is that we both don’t want an implosion of the North.”
Japan views China through the lens of economic opportunity but is also leery of its growing military power in light of territorial disputes, according to Mike Mochizuki of George Washington University. Japan fears that China will “use [their military] more aggressively to promote China’s territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea,” he says. In September, a skirmish between a Chinese fishing boat and the Japanese Coast Guard led to the arrest of the captain and a tense diplomatic standoff. China and Japan have consistently been at loggerheads over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. There has been “a remarkable downturn in Japanese positive views toward China,” says Mochizuki.
In a major speech last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reflected a bolder stand toward China, saying “America and China have reached a critical juncture,” and that it bears responsibility for “solving common problems,” including standing up to North Korea and dissuading it from a “dangerous course.” The “the absence of a deferential U.S. diplomatic tone signal hard bargaining and the beginning of difficult work,” writes Elizabeth C. Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Economic issues are high on the agenda as U.S. concerns grow over China’s artificial devaluation of its currency to give it a competitive advantage in the marketplace and its holding of dollars by China’s Central Bank. At the November G-20 Summit in Seoul, President Obama raised the issue with President Hu, but left without concrete concessions. The U.S. trade deficit with China currently stands at more than $25 billion.
China’s economy surpassed that of Japan in August to become the second-largest economy in the world, drawing attention to projections that China will overtake the U.S. within the next decade.
The Washington meeting between the two heads of state was preceded by Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ trip to China last week, where he met with defense officials in Beijing in an attempt to pave the way for President Hu’s visit. During Gates’ visit, the Chinese military conducted a test flight of its new stealth plane, known as the J-20, about which Gates had previously voiced concern. China’s military capability, both in its navy and air prowess, has alarmed its neighbors and the Pentagon.
Less prominent in the agenda are concerns over human rights. China angrily responded to international criticism of its treatment of longtime dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was unable to travel to receive his Nobel Peace Prize because he is serving an 11-year prison sentence for his pro-democracy writings. China called the award an undermining of its sovereignty, demanded that other countries to boycott of the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, and clamped down on any reference to it in the media.
From the perspective of President Hu Jintao, the visit — and the relationship — is also important to his legacy as he prepares to vacate his office 18 months from now. Despite the unlikelihood of a major shift in policy, China is seeking “the symbolic recognition, not only of China, but of President Hu’s status,” says Pei Minxin, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College in California.
For the two rivals, the visit will be about managing “a complex, competitive relationship” between the two most important players in world affairs, according to Shambaugh. In the days ahead in Washington, the balance will be in forging practical consensus while promoting the respective interests of two competing superpowers.
With reporting by Dan Sagalyn