Don't expect too much from Hu-Obama talks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2011, 12:00am

In the world of international diplomacy, it is tradition that the guest should bring a gift. American officials would like to see President Hu Jintao's arms held wide with offerings when he meets Barack Obama today at the White House. All manner of troublesome issues blotch the relationship, so it is highly likely that China will make some concessions. But while giveaways are expected whenever the leaders of the nations talk, they should not be obligatory: what is important is a genuine dialogue.

Arguably, that should be well advanced - the summit will be the eighth time Hu and Obama have met. But numbers are meaningless in a relationship so complicated and full of suspicion and mistrust. In comments setting the tone of the talks, Hu and American officials have spoken of the need to start afresh and use mutual interests to foster and build co-operation. It is certainly what is needed, but will not come about if unreasonable demands continue to get in the way.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke have made plain what they want. It is clear that their wish list is more than China can possibly deliver. Getting greater help from Beijing in pressuring North Korea over its belligerent ways and supporting UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme are matters of priority that China should and is likely to back. However, that is not the case with the value of the yuan, by far the hottest matter in the US Congress and a topic that gets raised whenever Chinese and American leaders meet. Then there is concern about whether China means what it says when it talks of a peaceful rise, its hunger for the world's food and natural resources, its position on climate change and disagreements over Taiwan, Tibet and human rights.

These are not the ingredients of a friendly, stable relationship. They are why the sides are so mistrustful of one another. Ties go from highs to lows; with diplomatic efforts less about moving forward than regaining what has been lost. A world that craves peace and stability does not need such uncertainty.

China has shown a willingness for sounder foundations. In a US newspaper commentary this week, Hu sought an end to the cold war mentality that divides the sides, calling for respect of one another's development path. He told visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates last week that he would 'seriously consider' an initiative for a formal military dialogue. With the ever-present possibility of a flare up between the rivals' navies in the Pacific, that is the best of building blocks.

Truth be told, expectations should not be raised too high. China has little to gain from strengthening the yuan at the pace and rate the US wants. And whatever it does, there will always be those in Congress who contend it has not gone far enough. There are reasons to revalue the yuan at a measured pace. Some economists believe rising inflation in China will ease tensions by making Chinese-made goods less competitive, which in turn will lead to more balanced trade and spur domestic production in the US. Still, every option has to be considered if it improves ties.

China's growing power is problematic for the US, which has for so long been able to get its way economically and diplomatically. There is bound to be friction, but that is no reason for Beijing to rein in its influence or curb its spending, even on its military. Reassurance is necessary, and the best way of achieving that is through transparency and regular dialogue. If Hu and Obama strike a groundbreaking deal today, it should be thought of as a bonus.