Will Obama and Hu Jintao Find Middle Ground?

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Hu Jintao

One Chinese saying about the country's ties with the U.S. goes like this: the U.S. and China are too dependent on one another for their relationship to be terribly bad, but they are too different from one another for their relationship to ever be very good. Since the relative high of President Barack Obama's visit to China in November 2009, the nations' dynamic has emphasized the second part of that saying. But with Chinese President Hu Jintao arriving in the U.S. this week, the two powers have labored to achieve a measure of accord on some critical issues including North Korea, military relations, climate change and trade. The question now is whether that easing of tensions will mean real progress during Hu's Jan. 18-21 visit and, more important, whether the improved relations can continue.

The recent cooperation between the two sides has been driven by Hu's desire to have a smooth and successful visit to Washington. It will be his first state visit, complete with a dinner at the White House. When Hu visited the White House in 2006, the Chinese considered it a state visit, but the U.S. did not, and President George W. Bush merely provided the Chinese leader with a lunch. With Hu scheduled to begin the transition of handing over leadership to his likely successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, next year, a successful state visit on what may be his last official trip to the U.S. would help Hu cement his foreign policy legacy.

He will hope to avoid the blunders of 2006, when the anthem of the People's Republic of China was introduced as that of the Republic of China, the name of the country before 1949 and now the official title of the democratic island of Taiwan. In addition, an activist from the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in China, infiltrated a press conference and heckled Hu. "The sense is that it's crucial for Hu's legacy to conduct a smooth visit to the U.S., without the embarrassing mishaps of the past," says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. "It's the first state visit by a Chinese leader since Jiang Zemin in 1997, so it's of major symbolic importance to the Chinese. If it does not go smoothly, Hu will worry about being perceived as weak domestically."

The events of 2010 hardly helped set a tranquil course. Beginning with the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009, the U.S. and China have clashed repeatedly. Obama approved a $6.4 billion arms package sale to Taiwan in January, then met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual whom Beijing considers a separatist, a month later. Those moves outraged Beijing. Further disputes emerged over the trade gap, Internet freedom, Beijing's moves to constrict exports of rare earth elements and territorial disputes over the South China Sea. North Korea's torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in March, which killed 46 sailors, and its shelling of a South Korean island in November, which killed two marines and two civilians, have further contributed to unease between the U.S. and China.

In the run-up to Hu's state visit, there have been signs of improvement in some areas of disagreement between the U.S. and China. China's currency, the renminbi, has appreciated against the dollar since last summer, including steep increases in September and the end of December, dampening some U.S. concerns that it is undervalued and giving Chinese exporters an advantage over American competitors. After being frozen out for three years, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing last week, part of a resumption of high-level military-to-military ties. And China, which has been reluctant to criticize its North Korean ally, has recently taken a more active role in trying to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The improvement of relations is normal before a Sino-U.S. presidential summit, as officials from both countries step up advance visits and review where the two sides can find common ground, says Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing and a former National Security Council official under Bush and Obama. "These are good things, because it opens up the aperture for communication and it gets the two sides really trying to find ways to cooperate," he says. U.S. officials have said they want to move beyond the roller-coaster nature of relations with China. And China, too, has expressed interest in seeing something different. In a written interview with the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, Hu said the two countries should "remove disturbances, work for shared goals and promote continuous growth of our relations."

Elements of Hu's trip are designed to promote the sense that growing ties and the massive amount of trade between the U.S. and China benefit both countries. He is bringing a group of Chinese business executives, and it is likely that some high-priced deals will be announced. After his stop in Washington, Hu's delegation will visit Chicago, where they will tour a Chinese-owned auto-parts factory, a Chinese wind-power company and a Chinese-funded Confucius Institute, where American students study Mandarin.

But once the visit ends, the pressures that tug at the bilateral relationship will soon re-emerge. In recent days, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gates have all delivered speeches with strongly worded passages about what improvements the U.S. wants to see in the relationship. In a Jan. 14 lecture that covered the broad scope of Sino-U.S. relations, Clinton devoted several lines to U.S. criticism of China's human-rights record and named dissidents who have been harassed, imprisoned or even disappeared. It reflected a vast change from her first visit to Beijing, as Secretary of State two years ago, when she said the U.S. wouldn't let the issue interfere with cooperation on global concerns like climate change.

While the two sides will put on a bright show of cooperation this week, it isn't expected to last for long. Reports have emerged that Obama is considering the sale of another arms package to Taiwan for after Hu's visit, when the impetus to make nice will vanish. More broadly, the President's focus will likely shift to domestic concerns and pursuing re-election in 2012, while Hu will prepare for the upcoming leadership transition. "Hu's focus is on stability within the party and society far more than it is on a strategic partnership with Washington," says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst. And given the host of potential disagreements certain to come up again, Hu's visit, like Obama's Beijing trip, will be a high point ahead of a period of strain, says Sun Zhe, a professor of international studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "I think the Sino-U.S. relationship is very likely to deteriorate this year, due to our fundamentally different standpoints," he says. One can only hope that as the saying goes, just as Sino-U.S. ties can only get so good, they can also only get so bad.

— With reporting by Jessie Jiang