January 21, 2011 — Chinese President Hu Jintao's just-concluded summit with President Obama was a win both for the Communist Party and for Hu himself, demonstrating once again the Chinese government's reliance on ceremony to bolster its standing among its people. China's state-run newspapers ran enormous photographs of Hu with Obama, a not-so-subtle message that China is now the United States' equal on the world stage.
For the Obama administration, the meeting went smoothly and yielded some progress on difficult issues - but it also served as a reminder that the U.S.-China relationship will continue to be among Washington's most nettlesome.
"The most important thing they did was, for the time being, put a floor under the relationship after a very bad year," said Michael Green, a former National Security Council senior official. "No one expected a transformational summit, but if you graded it pass-fail, I say they passed."
The Chinese side, as it often does during summits, brought its checkbook, inking deals for aircraft and other heavy machinery, agricultural products and software that could be worth $45 billion for U.S. firms. China also indicated that it would give U.S. companies better treatment and do more to protect their intellectual property. And on the hot-button issues of human rights and North Korea, the Chinese side showed a small amount of flexibility, which U.S. officials interpreted as a good sign.
In addition, the Obama administration succeeded in righting what many in the administration saw to be an error during the last U.S.-China summit, in Beijing in November 2009 - the United States' acknowledgment of China's "core interests" in Tibet and Taiwan. That term figured prominently in a joint statement issued in 2009. It was not repeated in the communique released Wednesday.
More broadly, Obama and other members of his Cabinet seem to have succeeded in conveying a message to China that they had no intention of backing down in the face of China's aggressive foreign policy over the past 18 months. "The administration wanted to make China understand that it needed to rein in its irrational exuberance," said Daniel Kliman, a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security, "that it would stand firm when necessary."
In the balance between symbolism and substance, symbolism prevailed.
There was little progress on the Obama administration's goal of pushing China to allow the value of its currency to rise - which would potentially make U.S. exports more attractive. Many of the economic deals and commitments will take months or years to carry through. And on the issues of uniting to stop nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, the two sides continue to differ on tactics and, indeed, strategy, although the two Koreas agreed this week to hold high-level military talks, a step both China and the United States support.
Hu, who left Washington on Thursday and traveled to Chicago for events to highlight the study of Mandarin and China's investments in the United States, spent the summit sticking closely to his script and Chinese bromides about "partnership based on mutual respect and benefit." At a speech Thursday sponsored by the National Committee on United States-China Relations, Hu reiterated the perennial vow of Chinese leaders that "China will never seek hegemony or seek an expansionist policy."
The one moment when he seemed to veer from his talking points occurred Wednesday during a news conference with Obama when he acknowledged that "a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights." Those comments were excised from his remarks in reports by the Chinese state-run press. And on Thursday, Hu seemed to water down that acknowledgment, telling the National Committee on United States-China Relations that "we still have a long way to go before we achieve all of our development goals."
Still, the Chinese pronounced themselves satisfied with the visit.
"The two presidents had extensive and friendly exchanges," Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told reporters Wednesday after the state dinner. The visit, he said, "proved to be a great success."
For Hu, the state visit, coming late in his second term as China's top Communist Party official, was critical to his legacy and whatever ambitions he might have to continue to influence the course of Chinese politics.
The last time Hu visited the White House, he was accused of torture by a follower of China's banned Falun Gong religious sect. The White House announcer then told the audience that they were about to hear the national anthem of "the Republic of China" - the name for China's nemesis, Taiwan. And President George W. Bush didn't offer him a state dinner, just a lunch. While the Chinese side insisted on calling the meeting a "state visit," the Bush administration demurred, referring to it as a less important, "official" one.
Four years later, Hu finally obtained the treatment from the United States that he and his government have been seeking - a full-fledged state visit, complete with 21-gun salute and a banquet at the White House, although Hu did not conform to Western tradition by wearing a tuxedo. And this time there were no significant gaffes.
Since 2001, Hu has served as Chinese president and chairman of the Communist Party often in the shadow of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who 13 years ago was the last Chinese president to wrangle a state visit out of the United States. Now as Hu looks to leave the presidency in 2012, he can return to China having matched Jiang's feat. And for China, the visit - and the praise heaped on it by Obama - was an affirmation of its arrival as a power on the world stage.
"The United States recognized that China is a great power," Kliman said. "Hu could take that home as his legacy."
Hu's meetings on Capitol Hill on Thursday did not go as swimmingly as his engagement with Obama. Some lawmakers were looking for immediate results from China, while others took the long view.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, emphasized the positive after his Hu huddle, suggesting that a major breakthrough had occurred in Hu's recognition that his nation had a subpar human rights record and that key progress was achieved in making China engage other nations.
Kerry singled out Hu's assurances that China wants to defuse the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, as well as other "conflict areas." This is a different posture than the traditional Chinese view that outside nations should not meddle in China's internal affairs, nor would it meddle in others'.
"I think there's a change and a shift in their recognition of the role they need to play," Kerry told reporters. "The role of major power is not something they've been accustomed to playing."
On the House side, however, Democrats and Republicans both felt that not much progress had been made, noting that Hu engaged in a Senate-style filibuster, speaking for 20 minutes in response to a question from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) about trade and intellectual property.
Kerry summed up the feelings of many, though, saying that despite his optimism: "Words as we all know don't define a policy. It's going to have to be translated" into action.
Staff writers Scott Wilson and Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.Related: