After the US-China Summit: Where do we go from here?

At the start of President Hu’s visit, I noted earlier on this blog that “There are clearly significant gaps in common interests, even antagonisms. Also, there are clearly strong areas of common concern and convergence of both economic and strategic interests. The simple fact is that our relationship consists of both conflict and cooperation.”

The question is, what was the result of the summit and where should U.S. policy go now?

First, the summit did not produce major “game changer” results; that was not its aim. It was, however, very useful and productive. There were long and detailed discussions which will continue.  Not all of the issues discussed, nor any private agreements, were disclosed.  This is normal for such summits. We need to continue this dialogue at the highest levels to ensure that mistakes are not made, that we seek areas of cooperation, and certainly aim for conflict avoidance. It seems the most important aspects of the meeting in Washington was the affirmation of these goals. They may not in every circumstance achieve these aims, but it is clear that neither side want a critical break since so much is at stake for both to keep the relationship on an overall positive track.

Second, what was not highlighted during the meeting was what happened in discussion about North Korea. What is clear is that they agreed to have a more intense focus on this problem. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State will be going to Asia and this will be at the top of his agenda.  Both China and America have reason to find a solution, but each side also has a somewhat different goal for their optimum outcome.  One problem is that North Korean politics, strategic objectives and future leadership remain murky and problematic.

Third, the issue of trade, currency, and finance likely was a major issue and the Chinese reportedly simply said “let us do it our way.” Obama got a multibillion dollar Chinese investment package which helped to make the summit have a positive outcome in this very sensitive sector. This was somewhat “cheap grace” since it was a package which will benefit both sides in the end.

One U.S. key renewal solar power company will be closing down its New England plant and cooperating with a Chinese partner to manufacture in China, losing U.S. jobs. Obama’s signature economic push has been to make America a leading developer of such new cutting edge solar power. China remains a very smart nation both its domestic growth and how it fends off external pressures, which it sees as not in its interests.  But they will likely make some accommodation to these pressures since the alternative is likely to unilateral actions by states that it wants to trade with. There are many national security implications to these key macro and micro economic difficulties.

On the military side, little was revealed, but we can be sure it was not neglected- at least on the macro level. Secretary Gates knows this is important, as does Secretary Clinton. But in reality, as noted earlier here, we still have an overwhelming military capacity that China will not be able to challenge in a serious way for a decade or more.  But we need more confidence building understandings and agreements to prevent unintended consequences for both sides.

In the wings is the likely incoming President in 2012, Xi Jimping, whose daughter is a student at Harvard, but who looks like a more activist leader, which may bode well or ill for the future. He is doing his own round of global visits and is someone with whom the U.S. needs to deal and know.

In sum, the summit was positive for both China and the U.S., but difficult issues are still ahead. We need more, not less, focus on China and East Asia.

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