President Obama put his money on Chinese leaders, betting that by playing nice early on there will be a big payoff down the road. He allowed Beijing to stage-manage the visit in such a way that it displayed virtually nothing of what makes him a rock star internationally. No hoops with Chinese basketball stars; no mingling with the Chinese people; and no roundtables with NGO leaders or activists. It was, optically, one of the worst U.S. presidential visits to Beijing in memory.
Substantively, the visit was no better and no worse than any other recent presidential summitry. There was a laundry list of issues for future discussion and cooperation and a few subtle hints of change to come on issues such as climate change. Lots of talk, little action-just the way the Chinese like it.
Although I'd like to back the president, I'd place my own bet that being nice to the Chinese leadership isn't going to get us very far. It never has. What works is bringing others to the table to play. Our ace in the hole is that most other countries want the same things from China that we do: progress on reining in Iran, movement on the Chinese currency, greater transparency on Chinese military issues, improved food and product safety, etc. Our strategy should be to stack the deck with our friends and allies. That's our best chance for a winning hand.
In the meantime, let's start planning for President Hu's return visit . . . with lots of press conferences, town halls and media opportunities. It's their turn to play nice.