Summit yields gains for both China and U.S.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is making his first state visit to the United States.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 12:00 AM

CHICAGO - Chinese President Hu Jintao's just-concluded summit with President Obama was a win both for the Communist Party and for Hu himself, demonstrating once again the Chinese government's reliance on ceremony to bolster its standing among its people. China's state-run newspapers ran enormous photographs of Hu with Obama, a not-so-subtle message that China is now the United States' equal on the world stage.

For the Obama administration, the meeting went smoothly and yielded some progress on difficult issues - but it also served as a reminder that the U.S.-China relationship will continue to be among Washington's most nettlesome.

"The most important thing they did was, for the time being, put a floor under the relationship after a very bad year," said Michael Green, a former National Security Council senior official. "No one expected a transformational summit, but if you graded it pass-fail, I say they passed."

The Chinese side, as it often does during summits, brought its checkbook, inking deals for aircraft and other heavy machinery, agricultural products and software that could be worth $45 billion for U.S. firms. China also indicated that it would give U.S. companies better treatment and do more to protect their intellectual property. And on the hot-button issues of human rights and North Korea, the Chinese side showed a small amount of flexibility, which U.S. officials interpreted as a good sign.

In addition, the Obama administration succeeded in righting what many in the administration saw to be an error during the last U.S.-China summit, in Beijing in November 2009 - the United States' acknowledgment of China's "core interests" in Tibet and Taiwan. That term figured prominently in a joint statement issued in 2009. It was not repeated in the communique released Wednesday.

More broadly, Obama and other members of his Cabinet seem to have succeeded in conveying a message to China that they had no intention of backing down in the face of China's aggressive foreign policy over the past 18 months. "The administration wanted to make China understand that it needed to rein in its irrational exuberance," said Daniel Kliman, a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security, "that it would stand firm when necessary."

In the balance between symbolism and substance, symbolism prevailed.

There was little progress on the Obama administration's goal of pushing China to allow the value of its currency to rise - which would potentially make U.S. exports more attractive. Many of the economic deals and commitments will take months or years to carry through. And on the issues of uniting to stop nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, the two sides continue to differ on tactics and, indeed, strategy, although the two Koreas agreed this week to hold high-level military talks, a step both China and the United States support.

Hu, who left Washington on Thursday and traveled to Chicago for events to highlight the study of Mandarin and China's investments in the United States, spent the summit sticking closely to his script and Chinese bromides about "partnership based on mutual respect and benefit." At a speech Thursday sponsored by the National Committee on United States-China Relations, Hu reiterated the perennial vow of Chinese leaders that "China will never seek hegemony or seek an expansionist policy."

The one moment when he seemed to veer from his talking points occurred Wednesday during a news conference with Obama when he acknowledged that "a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights." Those comments were excised from his remarks in reports by the Chinese state-run press. And on Thursday, Hu seemed to water down that acknowledgment, telling the National Committee on United States-China Relations that "we still have a long way to go before we achieve all of our development goals."

Still, the Chinese pronounced themselves satisfied with the visit.

"The two presidents had extensive and friendly exchanges," Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told reporters Wednesday after the state dinner. The visit, he said, "proved to be a great success."

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