Positive Steps And Missed Opportunities In China

Our guest blogger is Winny Chen, Research Associate for the National Security and International Policy Team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

chinaLooking at the deliverables from President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao’s first summit is a lot like looking at the box score on the sports pages: it only tells part of the story. Sometimes, the best plays — astute defense, patience in the pitch count, taking the charge — won’t manifest in the final readout, but they could be the game-changing plays.

At first glance, the results of the summit were a mixed bag. The trip, at times, seemed to highlight the differences between the United States and China more than it did to deliver results. There was agreement on the need for free trade but also mutual finger-pointing on currency and protectionism, recognition of the progress in the Strait but the same catechisms on arms sales and One-China.

Perhaps the biggest loser was human rights. To be fair, President Obama did speak directly to President Hu about the issue, asserting “America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights,” and urging Chinese leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama. But at the end of the day, what some deem as President Obama’s more practical approach resulted in some missed opportunities. Unlike in past presidential summits, China didn’t release any political dissidents as a symbol of goodwill. Indeed, China went the opposite direction and detained activists before the President Obama’s arrival. The Obama team did not meet with any political activists or dissident leaders in China, nor did they directly reference China’s human rights record on the trip. The president’s much-publicized call for greater internet freedom was, ironically, censored in China. And ultimately, President Obama’s more conciliatory approach seemed to soft-pedal human rights.

But there was progress, too. Obama and Hu recommitted to improving and increasing military exchanges, programs, and dialogue and have laid out an affirmative agenda focusing on law enforcement and counterterrorism. They reaffirmed a unified approach to the crisis on the Korean peninsula. On non-proliferation, Presidents Obama and Hu agreed to work together to achieve a successful Review Conference of Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 2010 and supported the launching of negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty at an early date in the Conference on Disarmament. Most surprising was the progress made on climate change. So, all in all, a mixed tally.

But what the score, and many accounts of the trip, won’t reflect is the important contributions that President Obama’s trip made to U.S.-China relations. There were three intangibles that we cannot overlook. First, he signaled that the United States is back in Asia, ready to assume its role as an engaged Pacific power once again. Second, his remarks at the joint press conference with President Hu on Tuesday threw support and momentum behind sustaining the U.S.-China dialogue at the highest levels in both governments. Third, he made clear to the Chinese and to the American audiences at home, that, like it or not, on the big issues — security, economy, climate change — we’re in this together.