Barack Obama

Hu-Obama meeting a lesson in noise control

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 April, 2010, 12:00am

President Hu Jintao and his US counterpart Barack Obama made no breakthrough agreements during their talks in Washington last week. The issue that has so rankled relations, the value of the yuan, remains contentious. Efforts at the UN Security Council to get China and Russia to agree to toughening sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme continue. Still, it would be wrong to say that no progress was made; the fact that the sides sat down to a nuanced and quiet discussion is itself a significant achievement.

The relationship between China and the US is arguably the world's most important. Without doubt, there is none other in Asia more significant or keenly watched. A series of incidents, from US arms sales to Taiwan to Beijing's military build-up to Obama meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, have strained ties. Before Hu and Obama met, the rhetoric from Beijing and Washington threatened to drown out any constructive conversation.

Ties between the sides are never on an even keel. There are long-standing issues that keep them from being truly friendly towards one another. And as China's economy and influence grow, tensions with the US are likely to heighten. So ensuring that each can be heard over the noise becomes a foremost diplomatic challenge.

Fortunately, that was achieved in Washington despite the strains. Differences abound, but understanding that the noise has to be ratcheted down so that a conversation can take place is crucial, and on that score, common sense prevailed.

A lot of diplomacy is as much relationship-based as it is interest-based. Economically and politically, China and the US need one another. They have to work together on as many levels as possible, with the top-most one - the presidency - being all important. The yuan has again promptly taken centre stage - politicking for midterm elections in the US has put it there. It will stay on the American agenda until compromise is reached. The Hu-Obama meeting shows, at least, that both sides realise the value of keeping the rhetoric in check so that each other can be heard.