What Hu and Obama Can Accomplish

In the weeks that led up to Chinese President Hu Jintao's first, and likely last, official state visit to Washington today, numerous pensées on the world's most important bilateral relationship splashed across various media. They've included senior statesmen and well-known China hands like Brzezinski and Kissinger (also see Shambaugh and Hachigian and CSIS video). Of course, U.S. officials have also taken turns discussing what's at stake, notably from Tim GeithnerHillary Clinton, and Bob Gates. Much of the official-speak contrasts with a mainstream U.S. media that seems to have run away with the "China Story" (OK, did Glenn Beck really dedicate an entire show to China?), breathlessly proclaiming Chinese economic superiority -- "our banker, so much money and technology!" -- and lately military prowess -- "oh no, they tested a single stealth fighter!" I would echo my colleague James Fallows that it may not be the best idea to persistently refract our own self-doubts about the state of America through the "Chinese juggernaut" prism.

For China's part, President Hu answered a Wall Street Journal Q&A from the Chinese perspective, while Vice Premier Li Keqiang recently penned an op-ed for the Financial Times. And, importantly, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who basically runs China's foreign policy, published a piece that seems to reinforce Beijing's collective toning-down of rhetoric on the eve of Hu's visit. The reassertion of the concept of "peaceful development," which has been the guiding principle of Chinese foreign policy for at least a decade or more, indicates mainstream moderate voices may be wresting control again. All in all, the message from Beijing is pretty clear: Do not be afraid of a growing China.

Well it sure sounds like many are invested in what is expected to be a crucial meeting. Indeed, on protocol alone, it is important. While both sides have touted the fact that Obama and Hu have already met one-on-one on seven or eight different occasions, those were far different from a state visit. Even when Hu visited in 2006 under the Bush administration, it was a "semi-official" state visit, with the Chinese president only getting a state lunch. This time, the White House is pulling all the stops, with the requisite pomp, 21-gun salute on the White House lawn, and a lavish state dinner. Word has it that Hu will also visit with key congressional members as well as travel to Chicago to meet with business leaders.

For the Chinese officials -- who are ever so meticulous about each and every detail of the event protocol -- this kind of treatment immediately telegraphs to Beijing the importance of the bilateral relationship. Their particular care on how events proceed is not without reason. Unlike Obama's China visit in 2009, where China could stage-manage and control media, Hu and his delegation realize that they are powerless in the hands of U.S. media and the freedom of protesters. I suspect the memory of that Chinese Falun Gong heckler in front of the White House during Hu's 2006 speech has not been completely erased. Perhaps this is why China plans to run ads that portray the country in a positive light during the visit. Hooray soft power?

But what will be expected of the substance of the meeting, now that it has been imbued with such significance? Without rehashing what many have said, one recurring item on the U.S.-China "wish-list" is the idea of drafting a new joint communique/blueprint that shapes the next 20-30 years of the bilateral relationship. It would aim to recognize that the dynamics between the two major powers and in the global environment have changed and shape how to re-calibrate that relationship appropriately for the 21st century. This isn't going to be a "G2," largely because the Chinese won't go for it. Rather, the aim may be to set some new parameters to guide the behavior of the two largest economies in the world, not only toward each other but their respective roles in the world order.

Whether such an aspirational document materializes is impossible to say at this point. But even without it, an instructive model to follow is the 2009 U.S.-China joint statement. Many may have forgotten that far-ranging document, agreed on by the two presidents, so I would urge you to refer to it again. Much of the substance or "deliverables" of this meeting could potentially emanate from executing on the type of issues raised in that older statement. Certainly, on lower-hanging fruit like clean energy collaboration, investment, and joint research, the chances for deliverables are good. In fact, Hu and his delegation will almost certainly engage in a buying mission as a way to show that China supports US export strategy. Recall that in 2006, Hu visited Seattle first, during which Chinese computer maker Lenovo pledged to buy $1.2 billion worth of legitimate copies of Windows for its machines. On security issues like North Korea, it is difficult to envision significant breakthroughs over a mere four days. Even if progress is made, it will remain behind closed doors and will only be known through a series of actions after the fact.

This brings up a larger point about the current state of the bilateral relationship. It has simply become so multifaceted and pluralistic, with each country's interests extending globally, that friction over diverging interests are unavoidable. But nor are they unmanageable. Tension and common interests are proliferating across virtually every dimension, and depending on which end of the spectrum is chosen for emphasis, a different view of the relationship emerges. It might seem a fairly prosaic observation, but it is ever more pressing to not allow the pendulum to reside at either end of the spectrum (the Chinese are guilty of the same); instead, to inject the necessary nuance required of a more sophisticated and interconnected relationship. Fundamentally, each seems to abide by the notion that neither can afford NOT to get the relationship right.

In fact, citizens in both countries seem to agree. A recent Pew poll showed that nearly 60 percent of respondents believe that it is "very important" to strengthen the US-China relationship. Similarly, a Chinese poll conducted by respected Horizon Research Consultancy jointly with China Daily found that about 55 percent of respondents believe the bilateral relationship is very important (90% say it is "important").

I, too, remain cautiously optimistic. Stay tuned for a wrap-up of Hu's visit.