Hu’s State Visit Exposes Rift in Chinese Foreign Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 2

While President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States fell short on deliverables such as a speedier pace of appreciation of the renminbi, both leaderships have bolstered high-level exchange mechanisms that could minimize mishaps due to misperceptions and miscalculations. The Joint Statement issued after the Hu-Obama summit characterized bilateral relations as a "cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit." Although less grandiose than the "all-weather strategic partnership" that Beijing has formed with some nations, the new term is according to Chinese diplomats a notch up from the "positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship" that had hitherto described Sino-American ties (Xinhua News Agency, January 20; Wall Street Journal, January 20). Yet both Beijing and Washington need to do more to put bilateral exchanges on an even keel. Not least of the problems is that supremo Hu seems to have trouble reining in the hawkish proclivities of Chinese generals who are having a bigger say in diplomatic and security issues.

A modicum of "mutual respect and mutual benefit" seemed to have been evidenced by pledges made by the leaders of the two most powerful countries in the world. The 68-year-old Hu did not say much on perhaps the single issue that most interested Americans: the valuation of the Chinese currency, the renminbi. The Chinese delegation only indicated that Beijing would "continue to promote renminbi exchange rate reform [and] enhance renminbi exchange rate flexibility." In the joint press conference with his host, Hu ducked the issue altogether after President Obama complained that "the renminbi remains undervalued, that there needs to be further adjustment in the exchange rate" (Reuters, January 19; Xinhua News Agency, January 19). Yet Commerce Minister Chen Deming, who traveled with Hu, pointed out that the renminbi had risen by 3.7 percent since the middle of last year, when Beijing ended the currency’s 21-month virtual peg to the greenback. The Hu delegation bought goods and services to the tune of $4.5 billion. This was despite the fact that bits and pieces of this purchase package—including $1.9 billion worth of Boeing jets—had been in the works for some time. Moreover, Hu promised to improve the treatment of American companies working in China. For example, Beijing agreed to take out indigenous innovation, a reference to giving preference to technologically motivated Chinese firms, as a criterion when it considers bids for government procurement contracts (Washington Post, January 19; AFP, January 21).      

In return, the Obama administration made unspecific promises that it would allow more high-tech products and know-how to be shipped to China. "We want to sell you all kinds of stuff," the U.S. President told the Chinese delegation. Similar to previous economic dialogues, the White House indicated it would consider granting China "full market economy status." Yet no specific deadline was set. The Joint Statement referred to Washington giving its first-ever support to "China’s efforts over time to promote inclusion of the renminbi in the Special Drawing Rights basket." The SDR, a currency used among members of the International Monetary Fund, has been considered as a potential alternative to the greenback as the world currency. It is most unlikely, however, that this would happen in the foreseeable future (Christian Science Monitor, January 19; Bloomberg, January 20).    
Apparently owing to both sides’ desire to show that Sino-U.S. relations are, in Hu’s words, "not a Cold-War [style] zero-sum game," the Chinese and American Presidents tried to give each other face while shying away from actual commitments. On the issue of human rights, Hu acknowledged for the first time that "China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights." He went on to admit that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights." Yet Hu made clear that the universality of rights needed to be "reconciled" with China’s domestic conditions. Moreover, his remarks on the sensitive subject were not broadcast in China. The Joint Statement also reiterated Beijing’s long-standing stance that "there should be no interference in any country’s internal affairs" (, January 22; Wall Street Journal, January 23). The Chinese delegation kept mum when the White House as well as members of Congress raised the case of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prizewinner Liu Xiaobo. Liu’s wife Liu Xia remains under house arrest while dozens of dissidents who worked with Liu on the Charter 08 political liberalization campaign are subject to daily police surveillance or harassment (Los Angeles Times, January 20; Washington Post, January 19).    
On the nettlesome issue of geopolitical contention, both leaderships also displayed goodwill in the absence of a true meeting of the minds. This is most evident in the still-looming differences over how to resolve flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific Region. According to the Joint Statement, Washington “welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs,” while “China welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.” However, there is no indication that the Hu leadership has shown more tolerance toward Washington’s bid to be “back in Asia.” Nor has Beijing changed its perception that Washington’s recent enhancement of defense ties with Asian nations including Japan, South Korea and Australia amounts to an exacerbation of America’s anti-China containment policy. For example, the official Global Times pointed out that “U.S. political elites …believe the American government should take concrete action to contain China, preventing it from growing into another power capable of challenging U.S. hegemony.” Well-known Fudan University international affairs expert Wu Xinbo seemed to reflect official opinion when he indicated that defense arrangements concluded last year by the United States with countries including India, Vietnam and Indonesia amounted to “new efforts to check and contain China” (, January 8; Global Times, November 11, 2010).

Emblematic of major residual problems in bilateral ties are mutual suspicions between the two defense establishments. This is despite the fact that the Hu-Obama Joint Statement vowed to "foster greater understanding and expand mutual interest [in the military arena] and to promote the healthy, stable, and reliable development of the military-to-military relationship." Just prior to the Hu tour, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates managed to restore high level military exchanges with China by making a much-delayed visit to Beijing. Gates and his hosts pledged to resume regular contacts between senior officers. For example, PLA Chief of the General Staff General Chen Bingde is due to call on the United States in the middle of the year. Yet, the PLA refused to set a time-frame for confidence-building talks on issues ranging from nuclear policy to cyber-warfare. In the run up to Secretary Gates’ meeting with President Hu, the PLA Air Force unveiled a prototype of the Jian-20 stealth aircraft, which is billed as China’s answer to America’s F-22. As much-decorated combat pilot Xu Yongling pointed out, showcasing the Jian-20 during Gates’ visit "demonstrated the freedom of action [inherent in] the strategy of a great power" (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], January 11; Washington Post, January 11; Global Times, January 14).

In the run-up to and during Hu’s American tour, military officers and commentators have gone on a binge of America bashing. For example, Major-General Yao Yunzhu wrote in the China Daily that America was to blame for lack of progress in military-to-military ties. "The U.S. is wary of the economic and political influence of China and its growing military might, and the PLA, still enduring continuous U.S. embargoes, sanctions, and calls for transparency, finds it hard to perceive its U.S. counterpart as a trustworthy friend," said the senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences. National Defense University expert Yang Yi pointed out that "while China and the U.S. are mutually dependent economically, it’s still a zero-sum game in the military sphere." "I don’t think we should let go of our strategic goals and let America’s misgivings affect our [military] progress," noted the major-general. "What needs to be done should be done." According to popular military commentator Peng Guangqian, "the U.S. has not changed its hegemonic logic." "Recent reports coming out of the U.S. have shown that Washington has positioned China as a major strategic opponent that will challenge American [national] interest in the future," said Major-General Peng. These and other PLA spokespeople have also urged the speedy development of weapons including cruise missiles and aircraft carriers (China Daily, January 19; Global Times Net, December 29, 2010; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong] December 17, 2010).

It is probably no coincidence that the PLA Deputy Chief of the General Staff in charge of foreign intelligence Ma Xiaotian published last week an article in the party journal Study Times on the imperative of China "seizing the initiative in ferocious global competition." While General Ma made reference to the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s famous foreign-policy dictum—"Bide one’s time, never take the lead, but make achievements [when circumstances allow]"—he said little about taking a low profile. Instead, the senior officer put exclusive emphasis on seeking attainments during China’s "period of strategic opportunity." "Seeking achievements means creating auspicious conditions for prolonging and safeguarding our period of strategic opportunity," he said (Xinhua News Agency, January 17;, January 18). Particularly given increasingly frequent consultations between Beijing and Washington, it is probably easier for both countries to attain "mutual respect and mutual benefit" on the economic and trade fronts. Yet exacerbated contention between China and America on the military and geopolitical fronts, which could worsen in light of the generals’ aggressive tendencies, could throw Sino-American ties into disarray.