China’s President Hu Jintao’s four-day state visit to the United States that ended on Friday has unleashed an avalanche of empty verbiage, courtesy of the two governments, their media enablers, the punditocracy, and the blogosphere.
The trip, a victory lap for Hu prior to his retirement next year, appears essentially devoid of significant accomplishments or developments, unless you are a stockholder in Boeing (and can celebrate a US$19 billion payday occasioned partially, if not completely, by China’s desire to facilitate the visit with some feel-good tangibles for President Barack Obama and China’s friends in American big business).
Thankfully, a few useful observations can be extracted from the rhetoric and visuals surrounding the visit.
First, 2011 is not 2006.
In 2006, the occasion of Hu’s previous visit, George W Bush was still riding high in the early years of his second term. The “war on terror”, with a few bumps, was rolling along and doing in the surviving members of the “axis of evil” – North Korea and Iran – was at the top of the foreign policy agenda after the third member, Iraq, had already been dealt with. Confronting China – long a preoccupation of vice president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne Cheney – to moderate its support of North Korea and Iran was an important priority. 
In April 2006, when Hu visited, the US campaign to financially isolate and destabilize North Korea – initiated with the Treasury finding that Macau’s Banco Delta Asia (BDA) was a “financial institution of money laundering concern” and toppled it into insolvency – was in full swing.
And China was feeling the heat.
As the architect of the effort, David Asher, subsequently testified to the US congress, the objective of the BDA designation was an aggressive effort to “kill the chicken in order to scare the monkey”, that is, intimidate China into actively participating in the financial blockade of North Korea by threatening its own institutions such as the People’s Bank of China with a BDA-type designation if it continued its dealings with the Pyongyang regime.
The campaign, led by Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart Levey, was global in reach and reportedly successful enough to force some Chinese banks into cutting banking ties with North Korea. However, the US did not succeed in getting the Chinese government to change its North Korea policy or even abandon its support for BDA. 
China’s role as an impediment to Bush administration policies did not make for a particularly hospitable environment for Hu’s visit.
As Dana Milbank reported at the time:
The protocol-obsessed Chinese leader suffered a day full of indignities – some intentional, others just careless. The visit began with a slight when the official announcer said the band would play the “national anthem of the Republic of China” – the official name of Taiwan. It continued when Vice President Cheney donned sunglasses for the ceremony, and again when Hu, attempting to leave the stage via the wrong staircase, was yanked back by his jacket. Hu looked down at his sleeve to see the president of the United States tugging at it as if redirecting an errant child.
Then there were the intentional slights. China wanted a formal state visit such as Jiang [Zemin] got, but the administration refused, calling it instead an “official” visit. Bush acquiesced to the 21-gun salute but insisted on a luncheon instead of a formal dinner, in the East Room instead of the State Dining Room. Even the visiting country’s flags were missing from the lampposts near the White House. 
In addition to his sunglass-donning transgression, Cheney also had to deny he had marked Hu’s Oval Office briefing by taking a nap in his chair (thereby, perhaps inadvertently, leaving the impression that he had actually chosen to feign sleep in order to show his contempt for the red supremo).
The capper to the disastrous visit was the outburst of Dr Wang Wenyi, Falungong’s point person on the issue of vivisection and organ harvesting allegedly inflicted on Falungong practitioners by the Chinese government.
Despite having been denied press credentials by Maltese security during a previous overseas trip of Hu’s, somehow Wang was able to evade the scrutiny of the White House press office and acquire a one-day credential for Hu’s visit as the press rep of Falungong’s Epoch Times.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that somebody in the press office thought it might be a fun prank to throw Hu together with a Falungong activist.
In 2006, the Secret Service did not cover itself in glory, either, as Milbank described:
90 seconds into Hu’s speech on the South Lawn, the woman started shrieking, “President Hu, your days are numbered!” and “President Bush, stop him from killing!”
Bush and Hu looked up, stunned. It took so long to silence her – a full three minutes – that Bush aides began to wonder if the Secret Service’s strategy was to let her scream herself hoarse. The rattled Chinese president haltingly attempted to continue his speech and television coverage went to split screen.
Fast-forward to 2011.
China is perhaps the second-largest economy in the world, has weathered the “great recession” nicely, and has sufficient cash and clout for Hu to avoid being treated like a punk dictator on this trip.
Hu received the full state visit treatment from Obama, including not one but two dinners with the president. He was also treated nicely by Vice President Joe Biden, who greeted him at Andrews Air Force Base with the red carpet and a military color guard.
During the joint press conference, Hu was heckled by demonstrators across the street but nobody arose from the press gaggle to scream at him. (Nevertheless, China cautiously blacked out the CNN live feed of the press conference, leading to a predictable spate of “Commies Can’t Handle the Truth” news reports and blog posts).
Tough talk on Chinese currency and human rights issues and Beijing’s irritating habit of supporting North Korea and Iran was carefully modulated, with both leaders performing a predictable and rather tedious tango for the benefit of the media.
Therefore, in the area of visuals, China got what it wanted: acknowledgment, not necessarily of its status as a burgeoning regional power, but of its role as an important US interlocutor.
Hu’s visit puts China on a par with US strategic allies India (state visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, November 2009) , and the Republic of Korea (state visit by President Lee Myung-bak, June 2010), while nosing out Japan (which, presumably as punishment for its political dysfunction and inability to toe the US line on relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Base on Okinawa, has been forced to content itself with a non-state official visit by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, September 2010).
Being recognized as a nation that the United States talks to, instead of one that the United States talks at, is an important goal of Chinese foreign policy.
In the warm glow of self-regard occasioned by the election of Obama, who has restored US foreign policy to a posture of engagement, negotiation and multilateralism, US observers often dismiss the Bush years of unilateral and coercive anti-diplomacy as an irrelevant aberration.
China, it is safe to say, has not, and can remember times when US military, diplomatic and economic might was concentrated against nations whose political system, economic leverage and desire for an independent foreign policy made them appear a threat.
Times like today, in fact.
Despite the ostensible existential threat posed by North Korea’s wobbly missiles and fizzling nukes, it is difficult for China to regard the strategic alliance between the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan, ostensibly aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea, as anything but a containment effort against China.
China’s proximate goal is to get from behind the North Korean eight ball and the wave of orchestrated pressure applied to Beijing by Seoul, Tokyo and Washington whenever North Korea misbehaves.
It hopes to achieve the restart of the six-party talks, which recasts China as an equal, even the leading partner in North Asian security – a position to be recognized by the United States.
In the conclusion of Hu’s “interview” (submitted questions with written answers) with the Washington Post on the eve of the visit, virtually the only concrete policy position in the entire 3,000-word exercise concerned the six-party talks:
China actively advocates and promotes the Six-Party Talks process. We hope that proceeding from the overall interests of the denuclearization of the peninsula and regional peace and stability, the parties concerned will take active measures and create conditions for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. I am convinced that as long as the parties respect each other, engage in consultation on an equal footing, and implement the September 19 Joint Statement in a comprehensive and balanced way through the Six-Party Talks, they will arrive at an appropriate solution to the Korean nuclear issue and contribute to lasting peace and stability on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia. 
The prospect of a US-Chinese understanding on resuming the six-party talks has occasioned dismay in South Korea. Currently, South Korea has a de facto veto over North Korean diplomacy – the stated US position is that the North has to conduct inter-Korean dialogue to the satisfaction of the South before the wider six-party talks can resume – and it does not want to see its leading position diluted by US-China dealmaking.
Under the headline “China’s Hu Jintao’s visit: South Korea is worried Obama will cave on North Korea talks”, the Christian Science Monitor’s Donald Kirk wrote:
South Korea’s main concern appears to be that Mr. Obama will acquiesce to Mr. Hu’s call for six-party talks without the South’s full agreement – and without any substantive concessions on the part of North Korea. … The reason is that “six-party talks are not just for the nuclear issue but to ease tensions,” says Mr. Choi [Jin-wook, senior North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification]. “North Korea is desperate to talk to Washington. That’s why Washington wants to meet, and Seoul doesn’t want to meet.” 
Traveling in Asia, Harvard’s Stephen Walt reported on similar fears by another state relying on US backing to stand up to Beijing: Vietnam.
I have given several lectures since my arrival here, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials. One theme that has come up repeatedly is the fear that the United States and China will reach some sort of great power condominium. at the expense of the weaker powers in the region. There is clearly considerable concern that the United States will “do a deal” with China, in effect granting it a free hand in its neighborhood in exchange for concessions elsewhere. 
South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam don’t need to brace themselves for an “Obama shock” just yet.
China containment still makes too much diplomatic and domestic political sense for the US (as well as business sense for the defense industries) to be abandoned now.
Even if the six-party talks resume, the South Korea/Japan/US coalition should be able to hold onto a united front in negotiating with China.
However, the mere fact that the United States was willing to bestow the prestige of a state visit on the leader of a somewhat scary communist state that refuses to sign onto the US security agenda for Asia is, of itself, significant.
In her January 14 speech keynoting Hu’s visit, Hillary Clinton tried to reassure allies of US steadfastness. But she also made it clear that the US was looking beyond a containment strategy:
Some in the region and some here at home see China’s growth as a threat that will lead either to Cold War-style conflict or American decline. And some in China worry that the United States is bent on containing China’s rise and constraining China’s growth, a view that is stoking a new streak of assertive Chinese nationalism. We reject those views.
In the 21st century, it does not make sense to apply zero-sum 19th century theories of how major powers interact. We are moving through uncharted territory. We need new ways of understanding the shifting dynamics of the international landscape, a landscape marked by emerging centers of influence, but also by non-traditional, even non-state actors, and the unprecedented challenges and opportunities created by globalization. This is a fact that we believe is especially applicable to the U.S-China relationship. Our engagement ? indeed, I would say our entanglement ? can only be understood in the context of this new and more complicated landscape. 
On a practical level, Hu can take encouragement from the fact that his state visit – and the open US desire to engage with China on some important levels – sends a dismaying message to small neighbors counting on US commitment to a traditional containment strategy to support them in pulling the dragon’s whiskers.
This allows China to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt in the hearts and policies of the smaller frontline Asian states that place their hopes in America as a reliable, permanent counterweight to Chinese economic and military encroachment.
South Korea and Japan can brace themselves for a round of divide and conquer as China asserts the existence of a special US-China relationship to slice and dice the conservative South Korean/Japanese axis represented by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Japan’s Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara through bilateral outreach, appeals to national, corporate and individual self-interest, and invocations of the special, exclusive relationship between Beijing and Washington that Tokyo and Seoul cannot presume to share – but can perhaps hope to emulate.
PETER LEE edits China Hand.
1. Gary Hart, Lynne Cheney, and War with China , The Atlantic, Jul 5, 2007.
2. Two Lost Years, China Matters, Jul 19, 2007.
3. China and Its President Greeted by a Host of Indignities, Washington Post, Apr 21, 2006.
4. China’s Hu Jintao answers questions with Washington Post, Jan 16, 2011.
5. China’s Hu Jintao’s visit: South Korea is worried Obama will cave on North Korea talks, Yahoo!, Jan 18, 2011.
6. What Obama should NOT say to Hu Jintao , Foreign Policy, Jan 18, 2011.
7. Inaugural Richard C. Holbrooke Lecture on a Broad Vision of US-China Relations in the 21st Century, Jan 14, 2011.