01.19.11

The Stalemate Summit

Obama didn’t get the concessions he wanted from China’s Hu. But then, he didn’t have the cards he needed. Leslie H. Gelb on the test of wills—and why the state dinner could have been canceled.

Obama didn’t get the concessions he wanted from China’s Hu. But then, he didn’t have the cards he needed. Leslie H. Gelb on the test of wills—and why the state dinner could have been canceled. Plus, Robin Givhan on Michelle Obama's State Dinner dress.

This U.S.-China summit was a test of the balance of power between the two superpowers. President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao were well aware of the summit stakes. Obama’s strategy was to push as hard as he could, and he did. He needed Chinese concessions for a successful summit. Hu’s strategy was to resist as hard as he could, and he did, because all he wanted was a summit that did not fail. The Chinese side won this test of wills and power for two reasons. First, they had the easier bargaining position: All they had to do was hold the line, while Washington had to gain concessions. Second, Hu was in a far stronger position overall because China’s economy continues to grow in double digits, while the American economy remains troubled.

Photos: Hu Jintao Visits the U.S.

Obama fought the good fight and pushed—unlike the passive posture he adopted a year ago in Beijing. But he had to get concrete concessions from Hu to register a success, while all Hu had to do was smile without giving in and make sure that mutual relations didn’t deteriorate. Last weekend, some members of the Obama team even considered taking desperate measures. Specifically, they were contemplating either simply dropping the joint communiqué at the end of the summit or canceling the state dinner, according to administration officials. Their thinking was that Hu couldn’t possibly afford to let the whole summit fail, while Obama’s toughness would look good politically. Fortunately, they dropped both ideas.

For Obama, it was precisely the right time to start undoing Beijing’s grossly unfair economic practices. But all the Obama team managed to extract from the visitors was about $45 billion in new contracts to buy American goods and services, particularly civilian airliners from Boeing. Most of these deals had been in the pipeline well before the summit. On the really key economic issues, Hu essentially avoided showdowns and compromises and sounded reassuring. These make-or-break items included China’s unfair currency manipulation to gain price advantages on exports, its stealing U.S. intellectual property to make U.S. goods without paying for them, and its placing high and illegal hurdles in the path of American companies trying to do business in the Middle Kingdom.

Obama’s team was contemplating either simply dropping the joint communiqué at the end of the summit or canceling the state dinner, according to administration officials.

On security issues like China’s assertions of sovereignty over the seas bordering its territory, it was Hu who was doing the asking, and Obama who gave no ground. Here, the U.S. has the cards. For all China’s increased military spending and technological advances, it remains far behind America in military punch. The same held for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Beijing insists the sales be stopped because Taiwan is considered part of China. But Washington will continue to assure Taiwan’s safety. Obama had the strong hand on these issues because the military balance of power still favors the U.S.

Much was made publicly of human-rights issues. Obama had to show that his administration, contrary to some doubters, actually cares about these issues. And Obama did raise them both in private and in public. But he put nothing on the line to pressure Beijing because, in the end, Beijing would have mostly ignored the threats and the American side knew this well. So, all played their prescribed roles on human rights, and that was that.

As for the other touchy security issues—Iran and North Korea—China puts a finger or two on the American scales to help deal with nuclear proliferation. Obama asked for more, but he didn’t get that either. Beijing just isn’t going to pressure any country, no matter how bad or dangerous. It’s not part of the Chinese playbook, especially if they lose oil and money.

On the plus side, Obama restored much of America’s credibility for being tough and serious that he had lost in Beijing a year ago. That’s important and will count as problems arise in the coming two years. But he is not going to out-power China until Beijing sees that Washington is prepared to make the tough decisions necessary to repair the American economy. That will impress Chinese leaders. But they will be even more impressed by an American economy that is convincingly rebounding.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.