SINOGRAPH Hu and Obama seal real deals
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Both wore red ties, dark suits, and white shirts. While Chinese
President Hu Jintao focused coolly on the audience, as if with no one in mind,
United States President Barack Obama tilted his head to one side, watching his
counterpart seemingly with warmth and attention.
So, with contrasting personal styles but almost identical apparel, on Tuesday
the heads of the two nations announced, if not a wedding, then at least an
engagement. Behind them lay a nine-page joint statement full of principled
pledges yet devoid of specific actions.
This was the theoretical engagement that the Chinese had wanted, one that
encompassed a long-term, strategic relationship. The engagement is much more
important for the
Chinese than any single business deal or any convergent short-term tactics.
In the document, Beijing did not obtain the "strategic partnership" (almost an
alliance) that it seeks with the US, but it did earn "strategic bilateral
trust". This may shroud US intentions, since it is now clear that that the US
welcomes a strong and prosperous China. For Beijing, the "strategic bilateral
trust" is a guarantee that the US will not try to stop China's economic and
political growth by internal subversive actions or external containment.
In return for this, China recognizes US geopolitical interests in Asia, since
it acknowledges the US as an Asia-Pacific power. This, in turn, means that
China could be ready to support or even help American interventions in the
region. This could be very important in the future, especially given the
ongoing economic and political decline of Japan as a regional power.
The framework is similar to those agreed upon between the US and China with Mao
Zedong and then Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s. Back then, China agreed to
cooperate with America in anti-Soviet containment, and in return Washington
encouraged Western investment flow to China, which first triggered and then
fueled China's economic and political growth over the next few decades.
This time, the US promised cooperation in the fields of aerospace, aviation,
and environmental technology - all fields with potential dual-use technology.
In other words, Washington is preparing to lift (or is actually lifting) the
arms embargo imposed on China after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. The export
of such technologies to China could begin a new expansive phase for American
industries that in time may pull the US out of the present recession, along the
lines David Goldman and I suggested exactly one year ago (see
US's road to recovery runs through Beijing, Asia Times Online, November
Strategically, the US's theoretical pledges have apparently led China to make
overtures on two burning issues for Washington - Iran and Afghanistan.
On Iran, Hu said for the first time very openly that China is opposed to
Tehran's nuclear proliferation. This could unlock the door to new pressure
being exerted on Tehran by Beijing behind the scenes. Yet the contours of this
action are still unclear. A bit clearer is what China vows to do in
Afghanistan, where Americans are bogged down in an extremely difficult war.
Beijing has committed itself to "anti-terrorist actions" in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei said in a press conference
that Beijing did not want to explain the details of this commitment, but other
sources claim that the two sides so far did not speak of Chinese troops in
Afghanistan but are working on intelligence cooperation. This cooperation may
have already been approved by Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, the Chinese first want a political agreement between the
various players in the local puzzle before even talking about military
intervention. Accordingly, the crucial problem is to ensure the various tribal
groups have economic resources besides opium, which is now their main source of
It is necessary to take into account the dynamics and rivalries of the various
tribes. The problem of the Taliban's core of anti-Western extremists - those
dedicated to terror - could be limited. The hardcore militants, according to
some estimates, may number as few as 6,000 to 7,000. But there are 11 million
Afghans fed up with foreigners on their land, and they could turn their weapons
for or against Kabul.
If cooperation between the US and China on Afghanistan worked, this could
actually lead to the withdrawal of US troops from the country.
Now, as in the 1970s, a victim of the new entente cordiale is "human rights".
On this issue, the joint statement said that human rights should be addressed
through dialogue, but it acknowledged historical differences, as the two
countries reciprocally recognize their "core interests".
This means that human rights will not be used anymore as a political cudgel to
beat Beijing on the head every time that it is convenient - and what's more,
not to do so in public. Since this is a major appeasement for China, Beijing
will have to reciprocate.
The many declarations of principles in the joint statement betray a joint
"Chinese" approach taken by both countries. In public, you have agreements in
principle. In private, behind the scenes, you pursue concrete deals, keeping
negotiations flexible to save face.