Hu Cares? What a State Visit Can Yield

Even if the Chinese president’s visit yielded few concrete results, it was useful.

President Barack Obama listens to National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo while attending a state dinner with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 17, 2009
President Barack Obama listens to National People’s Congress chairman Wu Bangguo while attending a state dinner with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 17, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Chinese president Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States would appear to have yielded few actual results. Although the White House boasted that business deals worth several billions of dollars were signed during the visit and although President Barack Obama said, at a joint press conference, that he wants to sell the Chinese even more stuff, significant differences of opinion remain on economic and monetary policy as well as security in East Asia. Even if no progress was made on any of these issues, the visit was useful, according to two American foreign policy veterans.

On CNN’s GPS this Sunday, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who, as national security advisor to President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, was one of the first American dignitaries to visit Red China, stressed the importance of image and atmospherics as opposed to public opinion which, in both China and the United States, is increasingly skeptical of — if not outright hostile to — the relationship.

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who witnessed the normalization of Sino-American relations during the Carter Administration, similarly warned of “reciprocal demonization” in an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this month.

One of the dissonances in the relationship that fuels tension and mistrust is each country’s very different approach to foreign policy and strategy. Kissinger explained:

It’s very hard for the Chinese to absorb the fact that many of our actions — most of our actions — are more or less random actions that are generated by individual pressure groups. They put them together as if they were part of an overall design.

The Chinese have a very unemotional view of international relations by contrast. “They tend to connect the dots.” When America simultaneously sells weapons to Taiwan and urges China to appreciate its currency, Chinese hardliners interpret that as an attempt to deceive them — prompting military assertiveness in East Asia which, from the American perspective, seems at odds with the country’s self proclaimed “peaceful rise.”

Ahead of last week’s state visit, Brzezinski recommended both Presidents Hu and Obama to outline the principles of their countries’ cooperation in a formal declaration. “Such a joint charter should,” he wrote, “provide the framework not only for avoiding what under some circumstances could become a hostile rivalry but also for expanding a realistic collaboration between the United States and China.” No such charter was signed but the state visit had at least been an occasion, he told Fareed Zakaria on GPS, for itemizing the issues on which both powers can cooperate.

The challenge is now to find ways to work together with neither side feeling as though they’re giving in. On monetary policy, for instance, Kissinger noted that it was possible to persuade the Chinese to further appreciate their currency as long as they’re not perceived as surrendering to American demands.

In general, the relationship needs a clearer sense of direction, Brzezinski added, “but not one in which direction means, ‘I direct and you follow.’ That,” he admitted, “is much more difficult.”

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