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How to look at President Hu Jintao’s US Visit: Détente or Stalemate?

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 27, 2011

    Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States was expected to be one of the most important state visits of the Obama Administration, especially because the relationship has been described as being at a “critical juncture”. As expected, the currency issue, North Korea, human rights and intellectual property rights, dominated the dialogue; though, the tenor of the dialogue indicates that both sides chose to play it safe. Nonetheless, primarily because of the uncertainties surrounding US-China relations, the summit appears to have ended in a stalemate with both leaders agreeing to disagree on important matters. The uncertainties that influenced the nature of discussions between the two heads of state are briefly analysed below.

    Financial Crisis & Interdependence: The changed circumstances of the contemporary international order since the last US visit of President Hu meant that the economic fortunes of both sides are enmeshed in a manner beyond what was imagined by Keohane and Nye in the complex interdependence framework. Therefore, management of mutual internal economic policies is of interest to both. Consequently, part of the dialogue focussed on the advocacy of financial management; for China to increase its domestic consumption, and for the US to increase its domestic savings.

    Assertive China with a Weak Leadership: Unlike during his past visit when the US was still looking for China’s greater involvement in the international order as a responsible stakeholder, this time around maintaining status quo was the principal objective. The United States had assessed in 2006 that China was committed to the idea of peaceful development. While China’s sensitivity to issues of sovereignty is known, this time around the feeling in the United States was that Beijing has taken it too far with its assertions on ‘core interests’.

    Importantly, doubts have been expressed about the ability of Hu Jintao as President to direct the course of US-China relations; he has been called the weakest leader ever of the strongest China ever. As China becomes stronger, the nature of its power is changing. Along with it would follow changes in the leadership, from earlier generations when paramount leaders enjoyed supreme authority on matters of national interest. China’s internal power divergence and different foreign policy interests of diverse groups imply that the Chinese President is no longer the sole authority representing his country. For example, when Hu was in the United States, Major General Peng Guangqian called the U.S. a "trouble maker in the Asia-Pacific." He also went on to say that ‘the U.S., fearing the loss of its hegemonic status, was speeding up its activities in Asia to impede China's development.’

    The hallmark of the present generation of leadership is the ambiguity over who controls power in Beijing. This is a critical question exemplified in the context of the recent test flight of the Chinese stealth aircraft about which President Hu apparently expressed surprise when confronted by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. If Hu Jintao was indeed out of the loop on the timing of this test flight, then it becomes a cause of concern since it shows diffusion of authority in the absence of accountability. It also induces caution since the relative power capabilities of one Chinese agency over another are uncertain. This is especially important in the wake of recent assertions about China’s ‘core interests’ which are believed to be expressions of Chinese military interests. From the US point of view, while it will be more comfortable dealing with a rising China than with a communist China under a headstrong leadership, this phase of internal power realignment and multiple competing power centres are a cause of concern.

    Little Room for Bargain: When Obama visited China in 2009, he was criticized for giving in too much to the Chinese demands. There was pressure on him to be more assertive this time around. His stress on creating jobs, Hu’s acknowledgement of IPR and human rights issues, and the non-inclusion of the term ‘core interest’ in the joint statement are being considered as Obama’s success. On the other hand, as a last state visit to the United States for President Hu, this was an opportunity for cementing his legacy as an assertive President in the wake of criticism from the sole great power.

    Therefore, despite this visit, the course of Sino-US relations will remain largely unchanged, primarily because, in the first place, no one was looking for any big transformative idea as the two countries continue to grapple with the contours of what has been called the balance of asymmetries. Thus, under these circumstances, as evident from the joint statement, Obama and Hu only reiterated their stated positions on shared interests and managed to drive home only the little brownie point advantages. One has to wait and watch for the kind of impact that the acknowledgement of relative parity, whereby both parties agreed to manage their disagreements amicably, has on the future of the world order. North Korea may be the first ground for testing the robustness of the newfound détente that was discovered through the stalemate in Washington.