WASHINGTON (AP) ― Despite the pomp, pageantry and vows of cooperation, tensions between the United States and China are likely to grow, not shrink, after President Barack Obama’s summit meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
While the United States struggles with near-chronic unemployment and a continuing housing crisis, China was the first major economy to power out of the global downturn and recently passed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.
As China gets closer to overtaking the United States economically in a decade or two, trade and currency disputes seem likely to intensify.
A joint news conference Wednesday by Obama and Hu produced a rare concession for a Chinese leader. Hu openly acknowledged “a lot still needs to be done in China on human rights,” although he said progress had been made.
Both leaders called for a renewed effort of cooperation on a flock of other big issues besides human rights, including trade and currency irritants, fighting global terrorism and tackling the international financial crisis.
While it was in the interest of both countries for Hu and Obama to project a confidence-building image of mended ties after a troubled year for U.S.-Chinese relations, the thaw may be short lived.
U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and China’s President Hu Jintao take part in a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap News)
With neither side giving much ground, “There were some singles and doubles, but no home runs,” said Michael Green, a White House adviser during the Bush administration and now an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, using a baseball analogy to indicate the news conference produced no sensational results.
Green said the two leaders may have helped take the heat off some economic disputes, including some involving trade and investment.
“But the currency issue is going to continue to flare up. On the military side, on North Korea and on human rights this summit maybe put a floor under what has been a very rough year. But it didn’t solve the structural problems that are going to continue to complicate the relationship for the next few years at least,” he said.
Polls show most Americans still view China’s economy as more of a threat to U.S. jobs than an opening for new investments, a conception Obama sought to alter on Tuesday as he trumpeted a series of new business deals. He said the agreements would increase U.S. exports to China by more than; $45 billion and support some 235,000 American jobs.
“I absolutely believe that China’s peaceful rise is good for the world and it’s good for America,” Obama said.
Not all were as enthusiastic as the president about the developments. “Business deals, while important, are no substitute for firm commitments from China to stop its currency manipulation and to end its illegal subsidies of industry,” said Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a harsh critic of China’s policies.
While U.S. military superiority seems likely to last far longer than its economic leadership, wariness continues to grow in the United States over handling tensions on the Korean peninsula, confronting Iran over its nuclear program, Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance in the western Pacific and accountability questions of the People’s Liberation Army.
Sometimes there appears to be a disconnect between the military and civilian leaders in the one-party government.
During U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to China this month, China’s military conducted a test fight of its first aircraft designed to evade radar, the J-20 stealth fighter, apparently catching Hu and other Chinese civilian leaders off guard.
Also of worry to the Pentagon: China’s development of anti-ship missiles that could make it harder for American aircraft carriers to operate in the western Pacific.
And in another area, the world’s two largest energy users and polluters remain at odds on how best to deal with reducing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
Obama again pressed China to ease the government’s grip on the economy, lower barriers to imports from the U.S., crack down on the theft of U.S. technology and to stop holding down the value of its currency, the yuan, also known as the renminbi.
Since last June, when China said it was ending what amounted to a two-year peg of its currency to the dollar, the yuan has appreciated just 3 percent against the greenback. And while the dollar has fallen to its weakest point against the Chinese currency since 1994, the yuan “remains undervalued” and “there needs to be further adjustment in the exchange rate,” Obama said.
An artificially depressed yuan makes Chinese exports to the United States cheaper and American exports to China more expensive.
“I stated to the president that China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development and a win-win strategy of opening up” on various economic fronts, pledged Hu.
Yet many of the same pledges of cooperation were made by Obama and the Chinese leader during Obama’s trip to China in November 2009, only to fade away in the interim.
When Obama took office, he voiced an upbeat view of U.S.-Chinese cooperation in tackling many of the world’s troubles, but his administration more recently has taken a harder-edged position, confronting China directly on currency manipulation, on trade and on human rights.
Even Hu’s attention-grabbing concession that China still has much to do on human rights was accompanied by a caveat. “China is a developing country with a huge population and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform,” he said. And he said China was willing to talk with the United States about the issue, but on a “basis of mutual respect and the principle of noninterference in each other’s internal affairs.”
And Hu is not the only one who has to play to a difficult home audience.
Shortly after Obama formally welcomed Hu at the White House, several members of the new Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee blasted Beijing’s record on human rights, military expansionism and weapons sales at a hearing.
“While America slept, an authoritarian China was on the rise” after the Cold War ended two decades ago, said the chairwoman, Republican Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen.
The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman, offered a different view. “China is neither an ally nor an enemy. It is both a competitor and a partner, in foreign affairs, security and economics,” he said.