Work in progress

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 January, 2011, 12:00am

The pomp and ceremony of President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington was in sharp contrast to his last trip in 2006, when the Bush administration refused to dignify it as a state visit and the welcoming formalities were marred by protocol mishaps.

While in 2006 Hu got only lunch at the White House, this time he got two dinners - a small, intimate one with the American president, Barack Obama, plus two senior officials from each side, and a grand state dinner the following evening.

One American official reportedly said that if the US gives China the face that it wants, then China would be willing to give America what it wants. So far, it appears, the strategy is working. Obama said after the visit that the foundation for the relationship had been laid for the next several decades.

Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said there had been progress in all three key areas - security, the economy and human rights. But he hedged his optimism by saying 'they're better evaluated over the course of the long term to see have we set ourselves on the path to making real and substantial progress'.

In the area of security, one notable step forward was the Chinese leader's willingness to join Obama in expressing 'concern' regarding North Korea's claimed uranium enrichment programme. China was unwilling to condemn Pyongyang for the sinking last spring of a South Korean naval vessel and for the recent artillery attack on a South Korean island.

This new Chinese willingness to be critical of North Korea is likely to make it easier for the eventual reopening of the six-party talks on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. In fact, almost immediately, South Korea expressed a willingness to enter talks with North Korea on military matters. And North Korea suggested that they begin next month. While the road to resumption of the six-party talks is unlikely to be smooth, at least now there is greater room for manoeuvre by all sides.

In the area of human rights, much has been made of Hu's acknowledgement that China 'recognises and also respects the universality of human rights' and that 'a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights'. But there is unlikely to be much change. The foreign ministry, in explaining how China plans to improve human rights, said: 'Just as the US is improving its human rights, China is continuously improving its human rights as well, a cause of endless efforts.'

On the economic side, while Hu refused to accept American demands for a drastic revaluation of the renminbi, the two sides did announce business deals that Obama said would generate US$45 billion in American exports. Moreover, China agreed to scrap its policy of 'indigenous innovation', which discriminated against American companies when they compete for big government contracts with Chinese companies.

So the visit was largely successful, halting a serious deterioration brought about by Beijing's increasingly assertive foreign policy in the past year. But what Beijing has hailed as a 'new chapter' in the relationship is delicate and needs to be nurtured.

One step China can take is to release Xue Feng, an American geologist who was sentenced to eight years in prison last year for gathering commercial data on China's oil industry but who was found guilty of spying and collecting state secrets.

This would be relatively painless for China since Xue is not a dissident and was not involved in domestic political activities.

Hu's remarks on human rights came in a press conference that was very different from the one held when Obama visited China in 2009. In Beijing, the press conference 'with Chinese characteristics' consisted of the two leaders reading statements. This time, reporters were actually allowed to ask questions, and get responses. So while Hu was able to revel in all the trappings of a state visit, he had to pay the price of enduring reporters with insistent questions on human rights.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1