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Amid the wining and dining of Hu Jintao, a display of American 'smart power'

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Friday, January 21, 2011

It's hard to imagine Rome giving a state dinner for the marauding Barbarians. Or ancient Athens feting a rising Sparta. So before you make any assumptions about inevitable conflict between America and China, consider the image of President Hu Jintao tapping his toe to the music of Herbie Hancock in the East Room of the White House.

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The social whirl of a state visit is as short-lived as the flowers that seemed to decorate every available space Wednesday night, softening not just the tables but the mirrors and walls as well. The black-tie event said something about the familiarization of the U.S.-China relationship. Strategic cooperation is in part a habit, built on frequent meetings, careful protocol and the bunting of mutual respect.

Put another way, the grand reception of Hu was an example of what Harvard's Joe Nye likes to call "smart power." For Chinese (and Americans) who believe that the United States is in decline, this was a show that only a superpower could produce - and in that sense, a reassuring sign of the continuity of American power.

When President Obama toasted Hu, he wisely quoted a Chinese proverb that says if you want to build for a hundred years, invest in people. This is what the United States essentially has been doing since the opening to China in 1971.

Hu's visit should counter some of the premature assessments that America is fated to combat a rising China. That might ultimately prove to be the case, but nobody today can predict how a richer and more powerful China will play out its hand, least of all China's current leaders, who are about to transfer power to a new group.

If the summit meeting produced some modest gains, it was because the Obama administration has made an effort in the past several months to demonstrate that America is not quite so weak and disoriented as the Chinese might have imagined after the financial crisis and the soggy Iraq-Afghanistan wars.

The reminders of American power have come primarily in dealing with North Korea. In November, Washington sent the aircraft carrier George Washington to the Yellow Sea despite protests from Beijing. In December, a U.S. official says, Obama warned Hu that the North Korean nuclear program posed "a potential national security threat to the United States" - an unmistakable warning that the United States was prepared to take military action, if necessary. And when South Korea conducted military exercises in December after the North's shelling of civilians, the United States made contingency plans for war.

These signals clearly registered with Beijing and produced some small but welcome changes in Chinese policy. In the joint communique issued Wednesday, China for the first time "expressed concern regarding [North Korea's] claimed uranium enrichment program." And though the Chinese had initially preferred a return to the six-party talks, the communique said "inter-Korean dialogue is an essential step," and a new North-South meeting was announced the next day.

U.S. officials see gains on other security issues where they want China as a constructive partner. The communique reaffirmed Beijing's support for sanctions against Iran; perhaps more important, but left unsaid, is that China has made no new investments in the Iranian energy sector since last June. The Chinese also are on the same page with the United States on Sudan, for a change, blessing the referendum on dividing the country.

The American pushback also seems to have won some concessions on economic issues. The most important are Chinese pledges not to favor domestic companies in "innovation" contracts and to buy legal software (instead of the pirated versions) for Chinese government computers. U.S. business executives, who have been diddled by the Chinese on such issues for several decades, would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach before celebrating. But at least China is pledging on paper to be a more reliable economic partner.

And there was the rhetorical nod from Hu, when he admitted in the news conference that "a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights." Nice talk, but let's see some action.

When asked to sum up what the summit had accomplished, one senior administration official offered a bland-sounding but apt description. "They've reached the point where they're continuing an ongoing partnership," he said. That regularization of dialogue - in which the rising power of China is interwoven with the preponderant power of America - is the best answer to those who seem eager to talk the two countries into a new cold war.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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