In Obama-Hu Meeting, the Action Is Behind the Scenes

In Obama-Hu Meeting, the Action Is Behind the Scenes

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Now that Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States has almost come to an end, editorials in the Western media reflect a sense that the U.S. approach to China cannot be separated from human rights. Following US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’ speech [on China’s human rights issues], along with the White House’s repeated insistence that human rights be one of the discussion topics between Presidents Obama and Hu during their meeting, anticipation ran high in the American media over where Obama would position himself on China’s human rights record.

At the welcoming ceremony in front of the White House, Obama stated the importance of universal rights in maintaining peace and achieving success. During a joint news conference with Hu, Obama again repeated the same message, but such actions failed to satisfy the expectations of those in the American media establishment. The Washington Post immediately published an editorial criticizing Obama’s performance on human rights, describing it as even weaker than Hu’s.

The editorial went on to state that during the joint news conference, when an Associated Press reporter asked Obama to comment on China’s brutal oppression of its people, the president quickly turned to differences in the two countries’ political systems, cultures and histories, in an attempt to defend China. Hu Jintao, on the other hand, gave a direct response by simply saying China needs to improve its human rights record.

Such vitriol in the American media reflects the inflated sense of ethical superiority it has maintained vis-a-vis China, in contrast to Obama’s more practical approach.

Although Obama touched only briefly on human rights issues during several public events with Hu, that does not mean the White House has given up using human rights as a bargaining tool with China. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In order to gain greater benefits from the Sino-US relationship and to convince Chinese leaders to acquiesce to certain requests from Washington, Obama has already done significantly more than former US presidents.

Recall that shortly before Hu’s visit, the US dispatched three aircraft carriers for drills in waters near China’s coast, while Hilary Clinton repeatedly reminded Southeast Asian nations to remain wary of their larger neighbor. US Treasury Secretary Timmothy Geithner and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, meanwhile, continued to pressure China on both the economic and military fronts. A few days before Hu’s arrival, Clinton also delivered a long speech criticizing China’s human rights record, naming several Chinese dissidents. Her tone was not friendly.

In light of these earlier maneuvers, Obama could afford to simply sit by and wait for them to bear fruit.

Meeting with Hu Jintao, furthermore, is not a time for swords and arrows, given the fact that he arrives with $45 billion worth of business opportunities and 230,000 potential jobs. Obama, who is preparing for re-election next year, has only one year to work on his score card, with the economic downturn the number one concern for American voters. Obama needed Hu’s help in burnishing his record.

With the US going through an “L” shaped economic rebound, and with unemployment rates remaining above 9 percent, the American government and leading politicians have put the blame for the country’s slow recovery on China. Their reasons include China’s manipulation of its currency, unfair competition and China’s closed market, tropes that have become a central feature of political dialogue here. According to a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC, about 60 percent of Americans believe China poses a threat to the US job market and the country's safety. Among those more pessimistic about the American economy, over 70 percent believe China is a direct threat.

According to another poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC, when asked which country will be the dominant superpower in twenty years, 38 percent answered China, while only 35 percent said the US would hang on to its current privileged position. Compared to the same poll conducted in 1995, only 3 percent of respondents believed China would become the world’s dominant nation.

Given such positions, Obama’s greatest task is to convince the American public that he is capable of meeting the challenges posed by China. First, he must outmaneuver China in regional politics, followed by steps that turn China’s economic growth into clear benefits for the U.S.

Hu, for his part, brought sizable contracts, while also agreeing to allow China’s yuan, or Renminbi, to appreciate in value. Though Obama had hoped for speedier action on currency and other issues, he has met with some success, whether it be containing North Korea, strengthening the US-Japan-Korea alliance, improving the trade gap with China, and increasing domestic employment. Along with measured human rights advocacy, his job in meeting with the Chinese leader was pretty much accomplished.

As for Hu Jintao, he remained low profile during his stay in Washington DC, and did not plan to draw any attention. Though his attitude might be interpreted as shying away from a fight with the US, such an approach suits China’s needs given the current state of Sino-US relations. China is eager to maintain its rate of development, which requires both room and time, a strategy the Chinese call “tao guang yang hui” -- concealing one’s ability while waiting for the best opportunity. A tense Sino-US relationship is not beneficial to China. Looking at it from a public relations perspective, Chinese leaders may not be as articulate or as quick to react as their American counterparts, but when measuring the efficacy of such an approach, behind the scene dealings should not be overlooked.