Old beefs remain after the summit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 January, 2011, 12:00am

Judging by the gushing superlatives the mainland media has employed to describe President Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States, elation over its success is very much apparent - 'abundance of achievements', 'a new chapter', 'an epochal event', and 'a new approach for all countries that try to live in harmony in this global era'.

While all the mainstream media lavished space and pictures on Hu's visit and even delayed printing for hours to include the latest details because of the time difference, Xinhua has been the most diligent in producing timely, detailed and factual news stories, features and commentaries. In a commentary on Saturday, the news agency characterised Hu's visit as a genial spring breeze that would bring warmth and clarify uncertainties.

Indeed, the Chinese have exactly what they hoped for - respect and status as an equal partner.

In contrast to Hu's previous trip five years ago, he was accorded full honours this time - a 21-gun salute; a rare private dinner with his counterpart, Barack Obama; a gala dinner; and a joint declaration in which both sides pledged to forge 'a China-US co-operative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit'. As Hu also visited a Confucius Institute and an exhibition of Chinese companies operating in Chicago, his trip - complemented by an advertising blitz in the US media featuring smiling Chinese celebrities, including Yao Ming - was also aimed at highlighting China's growing soft power and role in creating jobs in the US.

For its part, Washington was also keen to play up common interests while glossing over long-standing differences after a troubled 2010.

Of course, domestic political considerations also contributed to warmer ties, as Hu's visit to Washington was probably his last as the mainland's top leader. He is expected to step down next year at the 18th Communist Party Congress. As for Obama, he is up for re-election shortly afterwards.

But as many analysts have long pointed out, it was difficult to expect a single summit to produce substantial results on any of the major long-standing and sticky issues between the two countries, ranging from the yuan to military confrontation to human rights.

Interestingly, at the welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn, Obama compared Hu's visit to the historic trip to the United States by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, saying that Deng had laid the foundation for 30 years of growing exchanges and understanding and he hoped Hu's trip would do the same for the next 30 years.

But taking a deeper look at the bilateral ties and putting them in a historical context, it is not hard to see that the same old sticky issues that marred relations in the past 30 years are likely to continue to influence the ties in the next 30 years - the three old T's: Taiwan, Tibet and trade.

In his major speech last week, Hu made it clear that the issues of Taiwan and Tibet concerned China's core national interests and warned bilateral ties would suffer 'constant trouble or even tension' if not handled properly. Beijing has long regarded US arms sales to Taiwan and meetings between US leaders and the Dalai Lama as interfering in its internal affairs.

Over the years, however, Beijing has shown greater flexibility over Tibet and trade. For instance, the central government made loud protests but took little action when senior US officials met the Dalai Lama in informal ways.

But Beijing cannot afford to budge on US arms sales to Taiwan. Any future arms deals for Taiwan - there are already suggestions in the American media that a new package of weapons sales is being discussed - would certainly derail the ties, just as Obama's decision last year to sell US$6.4 billion worth of arms to Taiwan did.

Moreover, despite the lofty rhetoric over future bilateral ties, there have been no signs yet that both countries will soon undertake drastic adjustments to their policies to reflect the spirit in the joint statement.

Some analysts now say that how the ties evolve in the next two years will determine the long-term relationship in this decade or even longer.

No matter how it evolves, one thing is certain: following China's continuous rise of economic power, both Washington and Beijing will be partners on certain issues and competitors on others. So far, the eagerness to build up the partnership has prevailed.