News Column

Obama, Hu Opt for Pragmatic Ties

January 21, 2011

Chua Chin Hon, The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network


Recalibrating bilateral ties after an acrimonious year, the leaders of the United States and China adopted a more pragmatic vision for future relations, diluting much of the ambitious language they used just 14 months ago.

In a joint statement issued after a series of closed-door talks between President Barack Obama and his visiting Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, the two powers pledged greater cooperation on a host of issues, and vowed to build a "cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit".

The dry, matter-of-fact language of the latest document was in sharp contrast to the upbeat and visionary tone of the joint statement adopted in November 2009, when Mr Obama visited Beijing.

The 2009 document laid out, for instance, ambitious proposals on new collaborations in areas like clean energy, science and technology, public health and culture. It noted that the US and China had an "increasingly broad base of cooperation" and shared "broad common interests in the Asia-Pacific region".

It even went on to suggest that they should work together to "promote world peace, security and prosperity".

Such optimistic language seems quaint now, following a year during which the two countries clashed bitterly over economic differences, and became more suspicious of each other's military and strategic intentions in the Asia-Pacific.

Summing up the new mood of realism in bilateral ties, Mr Obama told a White House press conference: "As we look to the future, what's needed, I believe, is a spirit of cooperation that is also friendly competition.

"In (some) areas, we will cooperate, forging partnerships and making progress that neither nation can achieve alone. In other areas, we'll compete. That's the kind of relationship I see for the United States and China in the 21st century, and that's the kind of relationship that we advanced today."

Mr Hu, honoured with a White House state dinner, similarly steered clear of any grandiose vision for bilateral ties. "China is the biggest developing country, and the US, the biggest developed country. In this context, it is ultimately necessary for them to strengthen their cooperation to meet such challenges," he told the same press conference:

In a further sign of reduced expectations for bilateral ties, Mr Obama was unusually forthright in his comments about two of the most sensitive topics for China -- its human rights record and Tibet.

With Mr Hu standing next to him, the US leader urged the Chinese government to enter into further dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

Hours earlier at a formal welcome ceremony, he told his Chinese guests that "societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just, when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld".

Mr Hu did not directly respond to Mr Obama's comments on Tibet. But in answering persistent questions about China's rights record, he said the country had made a lot of progress, though "a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights".

Reporters also pressed the leaders on some of their main economic disputes in recent years, particularly Washington's complaints about the soaring trade deficit with China and the value of the yuan.

Mr Obama, who faced growing pressure from lawmakers to get tough on China's currency policy, called for the value of the yuan to rise further, but stressed that it was part of a bigger problem with global economic imbalances as well.

Despite the lack of substantial progress on these key areas of contention, the signing of a raft of multibillion-dollar trade deals and goodwill agreements allowed both sides to claim success from an otherwise modest summit.

Mr Obama announced, for instance, that Chinese and US businesses signed US$45 billion worth of export and business deals this week, a move that would help support 235,000 jobs -- a top concern among Americans. Beijing agreed to 'delink' a policy that would have disadvantaged US firms from securing government contracts in China, and would extend the loan of two pandas to a zoo in the US capital by five more years.

The lack of a major diplomatic gaffe or security breach during Mr Hu's visit also helped ease tension somewhat, as tighter security kept out would-be protesters and gatecrashers. After meeting US legislative leaders and delivering a public speech, Mr Hu left for Chicago, the second and last stop of his US visit.

Source: Copyright (c) 2011, The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network / Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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