Last week’s White House summit meeting between President Barack Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao marked an important turn in U.S.-China relations.
Tong Kim, an international affairs specialist at Korea University and Johns Hopkins, wrote that the summit, “regardless of U.S. intention, publicly marked the beginning of an era of shared influence, leadership and responsibility by the G2 superpowers over complex regional issues and challenges in Asia.”
The New York Times editors, who seem to have a special animus for China, had to admit, in an editorial titled “A Newly Cooperative China,” that the talks were promising.
And the Chinese press spoke of a “new era” in U.S.-Chinese relations.
Not everyone struck a positive note however. Columnist Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, commented, “By all appearances, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington last week changed little in the lopsided American-Chinese relationship. What we have is a system that methodically transfers American jobs, technology and financial power to China in return for only modest Chinese support for important U.S. geopolitical goals …”
Equally negative was the evaluation of Thomas Donnelly in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard. “For all the pomp and state-dinner circumstance,” Donnelly said, “Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington generated little actual news … All that our China hands could say was that the trip was a welcome punctuation to the declining relations of the past. That the visit was a nonevent is just as well, for the United States could use a little quiet time to rethink its basic approach to China’s rise.”
But in fact, the summit was a major success. The atmosphere was cordial, the talks were frank but respectful, a better understanding of the realities of both countries was gained, and a range of agreements and initiatives were announced:
• Curtailment of theft of intellectual property of U.S. companies.
• Leveled playing field for obtaining Chinese government contracts that up to now favored Chinese companies.
• Authorization for Chinese companies to buy 200 airplanes from Boeing, worth $19 billion.
• Announcement of railway and energy contracts with GE and a joint venture between Honeywell and Hair, a Chinese appliance maker.
• Eased access for American and Chinese executives to each other’s respective markets.
• Dialogue urged between North and South Korea, in addition to the resumption of multilateral negotiations with North Korea that China had backed.
In addition, discussion of human rights was carried out in a respectful way. It had none of the acrimony of the past and therefore was more productive.
This is a good body of work that benefits the people of both nations, including American workers. Whether it signifies a new era of bilateral relations is still be decided, but it can be said with no equivocation that the summit was a major step forward for relations between the two states.
Of course, not everyone in U.S. ruling circles is for a deepening of relations, or strategic engagement with China as some call it.
Some prefer containment – end of story, which means in practical terms a rollback of China’s growing influence and power in the world. In this redux of the Cold War, China is considered not simply a threat, but the main threat to U.S. interests in the global theater (while at home, for these folks, the main threat is labor).
Others – including those advising the president – want it both ways, that is, containment and engagement. China’s investment opportunites, cheap labor force, and burgeoning consumption market are too enticing, and the readiness of foreign-based transnationals to do business with the Chinese is too strong, for U.S. capital to forego this very attractive “zone of engagement.”
While both sections of the ruling class want to maintain U.S. hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and globally, the attitude of the latter grouping provides openings to deepen cooperation on a broad range of issues, beginning with economic concerns of both countries. The summit is evidence of this fact and its success creates a climate and opportunities for moving in this constructive direction.
While it was mentioned in passing in the press accounts, the shared desire of Presidents Obama and Hu to encourage people-to-people exchanges, especially involving young people, is of great importance. Human contact and direct interactions dispel harmful invented stereotypes and misrepresentations of people and nations and their motivations.
But there are formidable challenges. The world is riven by imperialist rivalries, scarce resources, and competing social systems. In the U.S., the Republican Party is the gathering center for the most rabid, racist, militarist, and imperial-minded sections of the ruling class and political reaction. And the U.S. today is a declining hegemonic power.
The summit last week gives new momentum to meeting that challenge however. It is the scaffolding for a relationship that is so crucial not only for the American and Chinese peoples, but also people worldwide.
Photo: President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China wave to children attending the welcoming ceremony for the Chinese leader on the South Lawn of the White House, Jan. 19. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)