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Obama's China Summit Woes

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
January 16, 2011
The Daily Beast

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The U.S.-China summit this week could rank among the most pivotal in history. Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao can either find concrete common ground to work out increasing differences, or they can settle for friendly gasbag rhetoric that will bow to their mutual and mounting hawkish pressures. The disagreements between the two global powers are significant enough, but are being dangerously exaggerated by the military-intellectual complexes in both countries.

If Obama and Hu fail to reach tangible and practical compromises on tough economic and security issues, the consequences will be most serious: The two nations that are shaping the world to come will move from a period of modest cooperation and mutual testing to a very testy era. No one is talking about wars or anything like that. But they are talking about a level of political and economic conflict that will block cooperation and heighten international tensions.

Just days before the leaders meet in Washington, it looks like the “compromises” will be more rhetorical than substantive. On the plus side, officials say the leaders will announce tens of billions of dollars in new contracts for Beijing to purchase U.S. goods, especially civilian aircraft. On the minus side, there might be some unpleasantness on human rights, with Obama hardening his stance, and Hu telling him to mind his own business. If that is the result of the summit, hawks on both sides will rejoice.

Thus far, Obama administration officials have been trying much harder than the Hu team to find solid common ground in the danger zones, precisely to head off increasing right-wing influence on policy. U.S. officials see what hawks on both sides are doing—exaggerating threats and differences, driving those differences to sword's point. Contrary to what U.S. hawks say, Obama officials are far from oblivious to the new Chinese tendency to muscle neighbors and others, and they are troubled by it. The White House knows well its need to demonstrate toughness. Thus, the Obama team has been walking the tricky line between pressing for needed deals with Beijing in the mutual interest and, at the same time, not looking weak.

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