President Hu Jintao’s four-day visit to America was so uneventful it must be declared a success. As expected there were no significant policy advances or position changes by either side. There was less to Hu’s public remarks on human rights than met the eye, on North Korea he reiterated a position Washington has already rejected, and on trade issues even Hu’s statement that Beijing has abandoned its policy of favoring “indigenous innovation” won’t necessarily mean that U.S. firms will find doing business in China will change much.
Yet what mattered was the tone. We said before the visit that both leaders would have to ensure that relations between the two countries didn’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. On the whole the pair achieved that goal. Emollience was the order of the day. Hu, in particular, stuck doggedly to his well-worn message that China’s wasn’t a threat to anyone and sought only a partnership based on mutual respect. And with no gaffes, unlike on Hu’s first visit in 2006 during the Bush administration, there was little grist for the hawks of either country. Both leaders’ hands were strengthened in pursuing engagement rather than confrontation between the two (not that that means that there won’t be a series of tension points between the countries; there will.)
In addition, Hu got to be seen at home as participating in a meeting of equals. U.S. President Barack Obama got to be seen at home as a gracious, not supplicant host of a nation that, for all China’s rise, is still a superpower.