China's President Hu Jintao goes to Washington

As China and the US emerge from a year of diplomatic spats, Beijing appears more optimistic than Washington on what can come out of President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House this week.

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November during their bilateral meeting in Seoul ahead of the start of the G20 summit.
Luis M. Alvarez/AP
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi speaks as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton looks on during a meeting at the US State Department in Washington earlier this month. The US hopes to discuss a number of issues during a state visit on Jan. 19, including Chinese currency, the US-China trade balance, and North Korea.

Mismatched expectations of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States, which starts Tuesday, appear to put Beijing and Washington at odds even as both sides seek to calm their troubled relationship.

President Hu says he is going to the US “to enhance strategic mutual trust” between the two sides. A foreign policy adviser to the Chinese government, Chu Shulong, says Beijing wants the trip “to set the tone for the relationship for the next 10 years.”

In Washington, however, expectations are more modest as China and the US emerge from the worst year in their relations for a decade. “The summit will establish some much needed stability,” predicts David Shambaugh, head of the China Policy Program at George Washington University in Washington.

“After the last year of deterioration, stability is a good thing,” he says. “But it’s a long way from establishing strategic mutual trust.”

There have been recent signs of closer cooperation between the US and China on issues ranging from climate change to North Korea, say some analysts, which give reason for hope that the two giants might find more common ground.

A series of clashes with China over the past year, however, have battered President Obama’s early dream of a close partnership.

“America and China have arrived at a critical juncture, a time when the choices we make ... will shape the trajectory of this relationship,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a speech last week.

“It is up to both of us to more consistently translate positive words into effective cooperation,” she added in an apparent reference to hopes born of Mr. Obama’s visit to China in 2009 that were quickly dashed.

Feeding Chinese suspicions

US officials are disappointed that the wide-ranging joint statement issued during that visit – sealing agreements in fields such as energy, aviation, technology, space, and public health – turned out to be largely a dead letter.

It fell victim to angry spats over three issues about which the Chinese government is particularly sensitive, but which are questions of principle for America: Washington sold a new batch of arms to Taiwan, Obama received the Dalai Lama at the White House, and the US government offered vocal support to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

These moves fed Chinese suspicions, especially among increasingly vocal nationalist observers here, about US intentions. Washington’s renewed assertion of its leadership in Asia and its deepening alliances with Japan, South Korea, and India have also sparked fears in Beijing of containment.

US offers to mediate between China and her neighbors in territorial disputes, meanwhile, “suggests to many Chinese that America wants to take advantage of these disputes and use them as a knife with which to stab China in the back,” says Liu Qing, head of American studies at the Foreign Ministry’s think tank.

US concerns

Washington, meanwhile, is wondering what purposes lie behind China’s rapid military modernization. The expected deployment this year of China’s first aircraft carrier, and its work on a ballistic antiship missile known as a “carrier killer” have fed fears in the Pentagon that Beijing intends to threaten the US military presence in the western Pacific.

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Hu’s visit to Washington, expected to be his last before he steps down in 2012, “is a good opportunity for the top leaders to explain their strategic intentions to each other face to face,” says Professor Chu, an expert in Sino-US relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

“Hu Jintao can assure Obama that China does not want to challenge the US in the western Pacific, that we are still following the policy of a peaceful rise, and the US can reassure China that they are not trying to contain us,” he suggests.

Mutual trust?

“This is a strategic visit and President Hu will mainly talk about how to improve bilateral mutual trust,” adds Mr. Liu.

The problem with this, says Drew Thompson, a China expert at the Nixon Center in Washington, is that “trust is built on practical issues that are not on the agenda” for Wednesday’s summit.

Instead, they are due for discussion in wide ranging military-to-military talks that US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed during a visit to Beijing last week, which Chinese officials said they would consider.

Obama and Hu are expected to address economic issues: Beijing wants greater investment opportunities in the US and an end to Washington’s embargo on high-tech exports. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in a speech last week that the US would consider these issues in the light of Chinese concessions on US concerns, such as a revaluation of the Chinese currency and barriers to US companies operating in China.

Trade deals are likely, including a Chinese order for Boeing jets and a pledge to buy more US farm products. But even before it has begun, argues Kenneth Lieberthal, who served as an Asia expert in the Clinton administration, the summit has already produced “quite significant, substantive and relatively positive outcomes.”

That is because in the run-up to Hu’s visit, the desire to make it a success has prompted Beijing to take a number of steps Washington had been pressing for, says Professor Lieberthal.

The renminbi currency has risen, albeit slowly, Beijing appears to have successfully restrained North Korea from actions such as shelling its neighbor to the south, and in negotiations last December the Chinese promised to curb intellectual property theft and to stop favoring domestic producers over foreign competitors.

“A lot of things have been moving in a better direction,” says Lieberthal. “The question coming out of the summit will be whether these things are followed through effectively.”

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