I think it’s fair to conclude that the Hu Jintao State visit will be viewed in retrospect as a mild success. Now in the context of the US-China relationship recently, that’s not bad. The relationship didn’t go backwards and there was some sense that the two Leaders were working off the same page – building a comprehensive and closely coordinated bilateral relationship.
The key question is whether the two – through their speeches and actions – helped to dispel each nation’s “Scary Image” of the other.
For the Chinese the true Scary Image is a US foreign policy that seeks to encircle and contain China. In that regard of course there is the evident discussion of Taiwan – the continuing provision of Taiwan military with new weaponry – and the close-in approach of various US carrier flotillas in areas surrounding China, the tension over the South China Sea and of course the Korean Peninsula.
In this regard President Obama’s statement on the positive good that China’s rise can bring goes some way in assuring the Chinese people that the US is not focused on a containment strategy. The following comment by President Obama was targeted directly at the containment view: “I absolutely believe China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and it’s good for America.” For good measure the President went on to declare that the United States wanted to sell all sorts of stuff to China – underscoring the need to broaden trade and increase American exports to China.
On the US side, the Scary Image of China is the new assertiveness of China being the product of American declinism. In this scary image all the pessimism over the US economy and the growth of China’s military leads China’s military in particular, or the leadership generally, to press the United States on various territorial and policy fronts in the belief that the US has been fundamentally weakened. Such a view could give rise to miscalculations that might leave both sides unable to back down in a crisis.
But President Hu sought to counter this overly assertive China view. As Jeffrey Bader, President Obama’s chief Asia adviser concluded in the NYT:
The message seems to be you don’t need to fear us, but you should also know that we can’t do do everything you want.
Again Bader concludes:
“The notion that they can challenge our supremacy in our lifetimes is not in the cards. They can challenge us on certain technologies”, and militarily, “in areas close to their shores – but not globally, not for a long while.”
Now this won’t stop congressmen and those on the right from beating the drum of Chinese economic and military pressure, but the behavior and words of President Hu give no fodder to those who focus on “the China Threat”.
And that’s a positive outcome.