Hu, Obama take baby steps to improve relations

Neither side has so far made any significant progress, much less a breakthrough

That much is doubtful. But for the first time in months, the two leaders may at least have started reading from the same book.

After a 2010 notable mostly for Chinese acrimony toward the United States and its policies, Hu came to the White House not only saying that constructive relations between the two powers is essential but also offering some modest concessions to demonstrate it.

In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, the Chinese for the first time expressed public concern over North Korea’s recent disclosure of a modern uranium-enrichment plant, a small but ardently sought step in US efforts to press Kim Jong Il to roll back his nuclear-weapons programme.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Hu said at a White House news conference that China “recognises and also respects the universality of human rights,” a palpable shift for a government that has staged a two-year crackdown on internal dissent and imprisoned a Nobel laureate.

Until Wednesday, recognising credos like democracy and human rights as ‘universal values’ had been all but taboo in the Chinese political discourse, although China has signed the UN convention that enshrines the principle of universal human rights.
Words, of course, are easier than deeds.

“I don’t equate new rhetoric with new reality in China,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a Brookings Institution scholar who was President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser on China issues. “But at least new rhetoric is better than nothing.”

No breakthrough

So, in a sense, were the events of Wednesday. Neither side made any significant progress, much less any breakthrough, on the larger problems that have bedeviled relations ever since Obama made his state visit to Beijing in November 2009. On the US side, that includes revaluing China’s currency, levelling the playing field for US investors in China and establishing a serious discourse between the two nations’ militaries.

For the Chinese, the biggest thorns include US arms sales to Taiwan, its continued support of the Dalai Lama and what a Chinese journalist at Wednesday’s news conference called ‘strategic mistrust’ — the fear that the US is seeking to encircle China and suppress its rise.

Still, each side came away from the meeting with something it could point to as an accomplishment, however modest.

The White House had set out to keep relations from sliding even further downhill and to establish a more personal relationship with Hu that could sustain ties during the next two years, when the political realities of choosing leaders in both  countries will work against any significant improvement.

Obama appears to have gotten that. For his part, Hu was, by American accounts, fixated on engineering a state visit that would portray China as an equal partner with the US, and China’s president as a successful, internationally recognised statesman. He got that, too.

Both leaders should also reap domestic political benefits from their meeting. Hu’s enhanced stature, US analysts say, should help him tamp down political forces that have driven a more aggressive foreign policy and hamstrung relations with the US and China’s Pacific neighbours in the last year.

Hu and China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, ‘realise this assertiveness based in last year on nationalism and the belief that the US is declining has gotten them into deep trouble,” said Joseph Nye Jr, the dean at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a State Department and Pentagon official in the Carter and Clinton administrations. Nye was in Washington for a luncheon with Hu at the State Department.

“They think a summit which could be played as a success can give them ammunition to quiet down this rumbling below in the ranks,” he said.

For his part, Obama comes away from the visit with a new reputation for toughness in his China policy, something that is likely to please conservatives and some liberals alike.

US’ concerns

In the past week, the president’s cabinet members loosed a fusillade of speeches intended to lay out the administration’s differences with Beijing for all to see. And at Wednesday’s public sessions with Hu, Obama repeatedly raised concerns about China’s currency, its foot-dragging in stopping the pirating of US software and other intellectual property, its poor human rights record and, boldest of all, China’s refusal to talk to the Dalai Lama.

Critics on Obama’s left have accused him of soft-pedaling human rights since the start of his presidency, when secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton played down the need to raise rights concerns in public during a visit to Beijing. This time, Obama invited human rights advocates to the White House for a meeting on China in the days before Hu’s arrival and raised the issue in his remarks welcoming Hu to the White House.

Obama also had a ‘very serious’ discussion on human rights with Hu during a private dinner in the White House on Tuesday evening, Lieberthal said.

“The administration feels this is about managing a very complicated and very important relationship — and I stress ‘managing,”’ he said. “This is not a relationship where everything is going to come out right.”

Whether baby steps on human-rights language and other issues will show staying power after Hu returns to Beijing and the cauldron of domestic politics is an open question, Lieberthal and other experts said. But for now, “progress is progress,” said Nina Hachigian, a veteran analyst on US-China relations at the Centre for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning research group. “And even if it’s incremental progress, it’s better than no progress at all.”

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