Obama/Hu Secret Talks: Highly Unusual
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 20, 2011
On the 18th of this month, Mainland Chinese President Hu Jintao embarked on a state visit to the United States. It was the highest profile visit Hu Jintao has made during his term of office. It is also critical to the development of Beijing/Washington relations. Obama is currently besieged, both at home and abroad. Mainland leaders meanwhile, will soon undergo a changing of the guard. As a result, the spotlight is on Hu Jintao.
Before such visits commentators often make distinctions between appearance and substance. At Beijing's insistence, the visit has be classified as a state visit. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife will personally greet Hu at the airport. A string of high-profile meetings have been arranged. Washington apparently hopes to give Hu Jintao lots of face, in exchange for real concessions. It hopes to receive something substantive in return.
But Washington may be engaging in wishful thinking. After all, Mainland China has already risen. It can easily play the same game. Washington must adopt a mature attitude when considering Beijing's opinions and views. It cannot wave candy in front of Beijing, as if it were a mere child.
For example, prior to Hu Jintao's departure, he was interviewed by the U.S. media. He questioned the Fed's loose money policy. He spoke not merely on behalf of Mainland China. He spoke on behalf of the entire world. He criticized the U.S. for its vicious behavior at the expense of others. If Obama fails to offer a positive response, he will underscore the irrationality of an international trading system based on the US dollar.
Over the next few days, several points will be worth noting. First, President Hu Jintao will be in Washington for three days. He will attend a number of meetings and parties. Most of them are purely symbolic. But the most important one will be held on the evening of the 18th, upon his arrival. President Obama will hold a working dinner with President Hu in the White House. Only six people will attend. On the Washington side, they will include the president, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. On the Beijing side, they will include Mainland Chinese President Hu Jintao, State Councilor Dai Chenguo, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi.
According to the U.S. the arrangement is highly unusual, and provides a less formal environment in which Beijing and Washington can conduct a frank exchange. Before this, in order to ensure the success of the state visit, a series of high-level meetings were held between the two governments. But in view of the complex problems dogging the two governments, they may find themselves at loggerheads. If that happens, top leaders from both sides will have to reach a consensus at the last minute.
Next, during the meeting, the two sides will dispense with formalities. They will address each other directly on the issues that most concern them. For example, Washington has been pressuring Beijing on the yuan and the trade deficit. Barack Obama suffered a setback during the midterm elections. He is under enormous domestic pressure, Beijing is concerned about the change in leadership next year. Will it be able to maintain stable Sino-US relations over the next decade? These questions must be properly resolved. Otherwise they will undermine these leaders' political base.
In bilateral summits the world over, the watchword is "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." They must understand each others' plight. They must address each others' most pressing political problems. Only then can they achieve mutual trust. Only then can they this expanded trust be applied to other problems. During the working dinner on the night of the 18th, only six people will be present. This will maximize the chances of keeping the meeting confidential. This will allow them to make highly specific requests for assistance.
Another possibility of course, is that a quarrel may erupt behind closed doors. The two sides can lay their cards on the table, and avoid making their differences too explicit. If harsh words are exchanged during such bilateral meetings, they must often be made public. People can then see that their leaders refused to make concessions. Therefore the atmosphere during a private meeting is often more congenial than during a public meeting.
Finally, in Taipei, we frequently worry that Beijing/Washington summits will sacrifice our interests and security. This time Taipei is probably not the focus of the Beijing/Washington meeting. But whenever tensions arise between Beijing and Washington, Taipei is invariably a factor.
Some in the US have voiced criticisms. But fundamentally speaking, the U.S. government approves of current developments in cross-Strait relations. The most obvious indication was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's January 14th speech on Sino-US relations. She publicly affirmed the historic economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) reached between Taipei and Beijing. Beijing also believes that cross-Strait relations are peaceful, and will not become a sticking point in Beijing/Washington relations.
The Taiwan issue is gradually becoming an East Asian issue. This year Beijing experienced tensions and frictions in its relations with neighboring countries. South Korea, Japan, and even Southeast Asian countries are worried about the rise of mainland Chinese military power. They hope the United States will again intervene in Southeast Asia. Under the circumstances, it will be difficult for Taipei to remain aloof. In other words, the importance of the Taiwan issue has diminished. Nevertheless Beijing/Washington relations, the Korean Peninsula issue, the Diaoyutai issue the South China Sea issue, have all made their appearance on the strategic radar.
The Obama/Hu summit has reached a consensus. Beijing hopes to put in in writing. It hopes to hold the United States to its word. The China-US Joint Statement will be made public. Washington has reluctantly signed off on it. It hopes to leave each side room for interpretation. The final text is still being scrutinized with a fine toothed comb. But the real bilateral agreement is not in the surface text. It is in the face to face secret talks held that night.