How successful was Hu’s US visit?

By Sushil Seth  / 

Fri, Jan 28, 2011 - Page 8

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) US visit has been called a success by some commentators. Judging by the pomp and ceremony extended to him by US President Barack Obama’s administration, the first of its kind to a visiting Chinese president, that should be the obvious conclusion.

And not surprisingly, the Chinese media were lapping it up, treating it as a relationship between two equals.

Xinhua news agency commented: “China and the United States agreed … to jointly establish a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

A BOOST FOR HU

Personally and politically for Hu, whose lackluster personality and performance has been a serious drawback of his presidency, the larger-than-life ceremonial treatment in the US certainly did some good back home.

As political science professor David Shambaugh said in a TV interview the other day, Hu has been a lame duck from the time he took over as his country’s president.

Indeed, China’s collective presidency after the death of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) is becoming a bit of a liability for the country’s governance because its president, especially after Jiang Zemin (江澤民), is a hostage to all sorts of competing and contending interests in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the military.

Therefore, Hu’s successor as president is not going to fare any better in this politically incestuous environment. And this will be a serious problem for China from the viewpoint of social and economic stability.

However, from the viewpoint of Hu, his US visit was the first and the last hurrah of his presidency. Things are not going to get any better than this. He will remain a lame duck president, even more so than before.

EMPTY WORDS?

In the context of his just-completed US visit, some commentators point to things Hu said and acknowledged that make this an important visit for US-China relations.

“China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,” Hu said. “We will continue our efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people, and will continue our efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law in our country.”

It is considered important that Hu even acknowledged that there was a need to do more on human rights, and that democracy and rule of law remains China’s goal.

However, what does this abstract commitment mean? China’s leaders have said and acknowledged these things in the past, but have then gone on to do whatever was necessary to perpetuate the monopoly on power of the party and the suppression of human rights.

On Dec. 25, 2009, they sentenced the democracy activist Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), who is now a Nobel laureate, to 11 years in prison for subversion, branding him a criminal.

And they threw tantrums to warn off the world against participating in the award ceremony in Norway for the absent Liu.

The world was, in effect, told to bugger off because this is the way they do things in China.

Obama obviously was not effective in pleading on behalf of Liu, his immediate successor as Noble peace laureate. That means that Liu is going to rot in China’s jails for a long time to come.

TRADE DEALS

However, Obama is happy that China has undertaken to buy US$45 billion worth of goods from the US, including a contract for 200 Boeing aircraft over three years. Some of these were old deals.

These commercial deals are expected to create more than 200,000 jobs in the US.

The Obama administration is making much of it with an unemployment rate of just under 10 percent.

Hu has also promised to ease restrictions and barriers to US investment in China. Furthermore, he has agreed to protect US intellectual property rights as well as to make the -awarding of domestic contracts to US companies more fair.

All this, too, has been said before. Therefore, before we loudly celebrate these “new” trends, one has to -question what precisely has been achieved to further US-China relations.

Certainly, Hu’s visit, with his gala reception, has changed the atmosphere between the two countries; discounting, of course, his frosty reception from the US Congress across the political spectrum.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called him a dictator on a radio program.

On concrete issues like the US demand for currency revaluation to give the US a level playing field in trade, China will only do things at its own pace.

The US annual trade deficit of about US$250 billion still remains. And there doesn’t seem much hope of improving the jobs situation by revival of competitive manufacturing in the US.

On strategic issues, China has rightly expressed concern over Pyongyang’s new uranium enrichment facility. It has also come out in favor of military talks between North and South Korea. Beijing has made similar gestures in the past, but is reluctant to pressure North Korea.

As Pang Zhongying (龐中英) at Beijing’s Renmin University told the Australian newspaper on the direction of these relations: “Both sides are talking in their own language in the communique, but not much freshness was expressed.”

“Though both sides are talking about a plan for the future, no new theory or approach was worked out,” he said.

In other words, it is more a case of hope without “a longer-perspective plan redefining Sino-US relations.”

FLEXING MUSCLES

Take, for instance, their military relationship. In recent months, China has been quite aggressive about laying claim to sovereignty over waters and islands in the Asia-Pacific region.

It also warned the US against joint war exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, effectively telling it to keep out of China’s sphere of influence.

However, Hu still maintained that, “We do not engage in arms races, we are not a military threat to any country. China will never seek to dominate or pursue an expansionist policy.”

Such declarations have no meaning unless matched with peaceful action. And that has been lacking.

The recent China visit of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was even more illustrative of the problems in the US-China military relationship.

China is continuing to play hardball, and its announcement of the testing of a J-20 stealth fighter during his visit illustrates this.

If not for any other reason, making the announcement to coincide with Robert Gates’ visit was in bad taste. What was Beijing trying to prove?

Were they telling the US that their course was set to keep building a powerful military machine to eventually overtake the US?

Of course, Hu assured Gates that the timing of the test was not deliberate, but coincidental. And when asked if he believed him, he gallantly said that he took Hu at his word.

What else was he supposed to say? It would have been highly impolite diplomatically to call Hu a liar.

The Chinese announcement created a bit of a flutter in the region.

Beijing might even hope that the stealth fighter, its missiles and a range of submarines will have a salutary effect on its small regional neighbors, unhappy with China’s extravagant claims on the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region.

The US, therefore, must remain engaged in the Asia-Pacific region, partly to neutralize China’s aggressive behavior toward its neighbors.

Hu’s US visit was welcome as an exercise in taking some of the tension out of US-China relations.

However, without a concrete blueprint for its advancement, the tension in their relationship is bound to build up again, because China is bursting to demonstrate its dominance.

The danger is that these tensions might result in an unpleasant incident or two on the high seas, and worse.

Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.