President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the U.S. this week is a fine balancing act in several dimensions for both him and his host, U.S. President Barak Obama. Both men have to play to domestic audiences, particularly increasingly antsy hawks on both sides. Both have to reassure public opinion in the other’s country that the nation they lead should not be seen as a threatening power. Yet both leaders have to make substantive progress on ensuring that relations between the two countries don’t deteriorate further, and that the areas in which their national interests overlap, from climate change to Iran, North Korea and the international financial system, are stable and expanding.
At the fulcra of these complex balancing acts are Chinese assumptions that the U.S. is in decline as it rises, an assumption reinforced by the relative ways in which the two countries’ economies have weathered the global economic crisis, and by an assumption that U.S. President Obama is a less formidable president, by nature and politically, than his predecessors. This latter perception has encouraged Beijing to push on security issues, such as its territorial claims in the waters off its coasts, its military build-up and North Korea, and to stand pat on economic ones such as trade and exchange rate policy. These, in turn, have elicited a tougher response from Washington to rebuff Beijing’s greater assertion of its power in Asia, a direct challenge to the U.S.’s strategic domination of the region.
So nuanced and important will the public messages conveyed be to both leaders that this will be a carefully managed visit. Hu will want his visit to be seen as a meeting of equals, yet at the same time appear the deferential guest. He will want Americans to understand China’s economic and social vulnerabilities, but in a way that is clear at home — but not abroad — that he is doing so only to strengthen Beijing’s negotiating position, rather than he actually believes it. Similarly he will be visiting industrial plants in the U.S. in which China has invested, an attempt to show that China is creating American jobs not just taking them away. For his part, Obama has to be seen to be reasserting American leadership, to be playing a stronger U.S. hand in the growing Sino-American strategic rivalry, and to be getting some concrete evidence that he is stopping Beijing being so obdurate on the trade and foreign exchange issues.
These are complex messages to pitch. A Chinese ad campaign on American TV may attempt to create some background mood music for Hu. Yet on one side of the Pacific, an army of American human rights protestors and half the U.S. political elite, notably the part of it that resides in the U.S. House of Representatives, stands ready to turn perfect pitch into cacophony. So, too, an army of nationalists and netizens on the other side. It is a crucial four days for maintaining political equilibrium during which neither leader dare put a foot wrong.