Hu Cometh

by Evan A. Feigenbaum 

U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao watch members of the Old Guard march during a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House April 20, 2006.

"U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao watch members of the Old Guard march during a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House April 20, 2006. (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters)"

Chinese president Hu Jintao arrives in Washington this week.  And after a year of difficult relations, it’s probably a good time to ask whether the two sides can’t revitalize at least some elements of their elaborate and detailed 2009 Joint Statement.

China has prepped the ground for Hu’s visit by ratcheting back its rhetoric and presenting a friendly face.  A January 10 op-ed in the Financial Times by Li Keqiang (China’s premier-in-waiting) argued that domestic demand has accelerated while 2010 imports “may well top $1,390 billion, ranking second in the world.” China’s message: “we get it, World; so ease off on rebalancing.”  Meanwhile, Beijing hosted U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates on 11 January, restoring high-level military dialogue after a long hiatus.

But the fluttering flags, red-coated fife and drum corps, and 21 cannon shots will belie the reality of a rapidly changing U.S.-China relationship.

What the visit can do is to clear the air in some areas while yielding symbolic initiatives in others.  But while positive statements, and perhaps even actions, are probable, the central challenges of U.S.-China relations are increasingly structural.

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