They met in the margins of Mr. Obama’s two-day summit on nuclear security. The two presidents smiled broadly – most notably for a huge traveling Chinese press corps – before a 90-minute conversation in which Obama pressed for Chinese cooperation on Iran sanctions. On the topic of economic differences, Mr. Hu emphasized his preference for “consultations,” as one Chinese official said, over mutual public sniping.
The White House characterized the discussion on Iran as a further sign of a growing international consensus on punishing the Iranian state for its uranium-enrichment program. Jeff Bader, an Obama adviser on security issues, summarized: “They’re prepared to work with us.”
The two countries have come out of several months in which it appeared that disagreements over everything from Beijing’s relations with Tehran to Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama would push relations into a deep freeze. But both countries pulled back after each decided that bilateral relations were too important.
“Certainly there’s been this perception of growing friction, at least in part as the Chinese have tested the mettle of a new and young US president,” says Charles Freeman, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “But both sides realize that the relationship is extremely important and that getting it wrong would be disastrous for China as well as for the US.”
Relations were never as bad as public perceptions appeared to have them, Mr. Freeman maintains. But a realization by both governments about those public perceptions led to an orchestrated effort to reverse the slide, he says.
Hu, who was playing coy about attending Obama’s major international summit, announced on April 1 that he would. And China reversed course and agreed to begin discussing a new Security Council resolution of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. The US took steps of its own, including reaffirmation of Obama’s adherence to the longstanding “one China” policy. Also, the Treasury Department delayed a finding that was expected to pin the Chinese with currency manipulation.
“Both presidents saw the need to right the public or PR course of things,” Freeman says. “So in that sense, yes, there’s been a fairly extensive effort to address the perceptions and reduce the public levels of friction.”
None of which means that the two countries suddenly see eye to eye. Chinese officials are resisting sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas sector – an important energy source for the Chinese. Some China experts have concluded that China agreed to enter Security Council discussions on Iran primarily as a means of watering down sanctions that were appearing increasingly likely.
“It’s part of an established pattern in the Security Council,” says Dan Blumenthal, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “The US always has to pressure China to get anything out of them, and the Chinese always hold out for all the concessions they can get – short of vetoing a measure, which they never do.”
“The real question is whether they will ever accept any sanctions with real teeth,” he adds, “and my assumption is no.”
From Washington, Hu will continue on to Brazil for a meeting of the so-called BRIC quartet of rising powers: Brazil, Russia, India, and China. But in the end, the Chinese leader’s acceptance of Obama’s invitation underscored the importance of the US-China relationship. Hu was no doubt looking ahead to his planned state visit to the US later this year, a diplomatic coup that plays well at home for any Chinese leader, says Freeman of CSIS.
“Attending this summit is a relatively cost-free way of stopping the public bleed over the US–China relationship. But I think what they are really maneuvering for is a successful state visit by Hu this summer,” Freeman says. “Having the Chinese president play well in the US is always a huge boost with the Chinese public, so I think that’s what they’re looking forward to.”