Bumpy trip, soft landing
President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States last week may not have been a waste of time if only because he managed to convey a congenial image while trying to convince Americans they had nothing to fear from China's rising economic power, including a huge trade surplus.
The picture of the leader of the world's most populous, fastest-growing superpower in Seattle chatting it up with the world's richest man, Bill Gates, had to have been positive. So, too, was his talking in soothing terms at Yale University about the lack of threat posed by the burgeoning Chinese economy. The spectre of distant demonstrators at Yale - and one incredibly rude woman making an ugly scene as Mr Hu spoke beside Mr Bush outside the White House - was the stuff of trivia.
No one imagines for a moment that Mr Hu is going to return to China with a mission to do better on human rights. Nor, for that matter, did Mr Bush press him on the unsettling topic of human rights, beyond pro forma allusions. The mood was one of ritual politeness, of 'symbolism', or so the White House spinners would have it.
The real question, as we try to sort out what the visit was all about and why Mr Hu went there in the first place, is whether he got any message at all. From all that he said, he was clearly in the United States to sell his policies rather than listen to, much less act on, American concerns.
Just about everybody has noted how little the visit achieved on that trade surplus - a stupendous US$200-billion-plus a year and rising - or on floating the yuan, whose artificial value is held responsible for that imbalance between exports and imports.
So disturbing was the lack of movement on trade that most analyses of the visit hardly mentioned the omission of another issue - one on which Mr Bush a few years ago seemed to place the highest priority: the North Korean nuclear programme.
The two presidents may have agreed that, yes, North Korea should be good and stop building nuclear weapons. And China may be more than a little frustrated with the obstinacy of its troublesome neighbour. But the sense is that Pyongyang was so secondary as almost not to have been on the table.
That omission may not mean that China is doing nothing. The impression is that Beijing enjoys its role as host and intermediary in the six- party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programme - and is not happy over the breakdown since September.
That is when the parties signed off on a highly flawed 'statement' in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nukes.
The problem is that North Korea first insists on getting nuclear power plants, whereas the statement says only that the parties agreed to discuss that topic 'at an appropriate time'.
While the talks might have foundered on that disagreement anyway, North Korea refuses to talk at all, as a result of US action against North Korean counterfeiting. Did this unpleasant topic come up in the Hu-Bush summit? Or was the counterfeiting deemed so secondary that it was left in the hands of 'technicians' - finance types and diplomats?
With the future of six-party talks at stake, might Mr Bush at least have asked his guest if he could possibly try to persuade North Korea to stop copying other people's money? That's a subject that might be more likely to arouse interest in Beijing than human rights.
If Mr Hu wants great relations with the US - the whole point of the visit - then he should also help seriously on North Korea.
Otherwise, there is every possibility of a deepening regional rift - the US and an increasingly conservative Japan attempting to bring North Korea to terms, while South Korea gets caught in the middle and Mr Hu's visit to the US goes down as a lost opportunity.
Donald Kirk is the author of two books and many articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals