Hu and Obama seal real deals

2009-11-19Asia Times

BEIJING - Both wore red ties, dark suits, and white shirts. While Chinese President Hu Jintao focused coolly on the audience, as if with no one in mind, United States President Barack Obama tilted his head to one side, watching his counterpart seemingly with warmth and attention.

So, with contrasting personal styles but almost identical apparel, on Tuesday the heads of the two nations announced, if not a wedding, then at least an engagement. Behind them lay a nine-page joint statement full of principled pledges yet devoid of specific actions.

This was the theoretical engagement that the Chinese had wanted, one that encompassed a long-term, strategic relationship. The engagement is much more important for the Chinese than any single business deal or any convergent short-term tactics.

In the document, Beijing did not obtain the "strategic partnership" (almost an alliance) that it seeks with the US, but it did earn "strategic bilateral trust". This may shroud US intentions, since it is now clear that that the US welcomes a strong and prosperous China. For Beijing, the "strategic bilateral trust" is a guarantee that the US will not try to stop China's economic and political growth by internal subversive actions or external containment.

In return for this, China recognizes US geopolitical interests in Asia, since it acknowledges the US as an Asia-Pacific power. This, in turn, means that China could be ready to support or even help American interventions in the region. This could be very important in the future, especially given the ongoing economic and political decline of Japan as a regional power.

The framework is similar to those agreed upon between the US and China with Mao Zedong and then Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s. Back then, China agreed to cooperate with America in anti-Soviet containment, and in return Washington encouraged Western investment flow to China, which first triggered and then fueled China's economic and political growth over the next few decades.

This time, the US promised cooperation in the fields of aerospace, aviation, and environmental technology - all fields with potential dual-use technology. In other words, Washington is preparing to lift (or is actually lifting) the arms embargo imposed on China after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. The export of such technologies to China could begin a new expansive phase for American industries that in time may pull the US out of the present recession, along the lines David Goldman and I suggested exactly one year ago (see US's road to recovery runs through Beijing (, Asia Times Online, November 15, 2008).

Strategically, the US's theoretical pledges have apparently led China to make overtures on two burning issues for Washington - Iran and Afghanistan.

On Iran, Hu said for the first time very openly that China is opposed to Tehran's nuclear proliferation. This could unlock the door to new pressure being exerted on Tehran by Beijing behind the scenes. Yet the contours of this action are still unclear. A bit clearer is what China vows to do in Afghanistan, where Americans are bogged down in an extremely difficult war.

Beijing has committed itself to "anti-terrorist actions" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei said in a press conference that Beijing did not want to explain the details of this commitment, but other sources claim that the two sides so far did not speak of Chinese troops in Afghanistan but are working on intelligence cooperation. This cooperation may have already been approved by Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, the Chinese first want a political agreement between the various players in the local puzzle before even talking about military intervention. Accordingly, the crucial problem is to ensure the various tribal groups have economic resources besides opium, which is now their main source of income.

It is necessary to take into account the dynamics and rivalries of the various tribes. The problem of the Taliban's core of anti-Western extremists - those dedicated to terror - could be limited. The hardcore militants, according to some estimates, may number as few as 6,000 to 7,000. But there are 11 million Afghans fed up with foreigners on their land, and they could turn their weapons for or against Kabul.

If cooperation between the US and China on Afghanistan worked, this could actually lead to the withdrawal of US troops from the country.

Now, as in the 1970s, a victim of the new entente cordiale is "human rights". On this issue, the joint statement said that human rights should be addressed through dialogue, but it acknowledged historical differences, as the two countries reciprocally recognize their "core interests".

This means that human rights will not be used anymore as a political cudgel to beat Beijing on the head every time that it is convenient - and what's more, not to do so in public. Since this is a major appeasement for China, Beijing will have to reciprocate.

The many declarations of principles in the joint statement betray a joint "Chinese" approach taken by both countries. In public, you have agreements in principle. In private, behind the scenes, you pursue concrete deals, keeping negotiations flexible to save face. (2009-11-19 Asia Times)


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