President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the US was largely billed as an enhancement of bilateral relations and a strengthening of friendship between Washington and Beijing. But the smiles and handshakes belied an ongoing game of smoke and mirrors that is beginning to define Sino-US relations. Coming soon after the European tour of Vice Premier Li Keqiang – he was warmly welcomed with billions of dollars worth of deals with UK and Spanish firms – the mood was comparatively frosty.
Hu;s trip to the American capital followed a three-day visit to China by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. With organized inspections of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) facilities and talks with top military brass, Gates’ visit was meant to repair trust between the two countries. Beijing severed military ties with the US last year after Washington said it would sell US$6 billion worth of arms to Taiwan.
In what was hardly an example of the trust Washington hoped to secure, the Chinese military announced the successful test flight of its J-20 stealth fighter jet during Gates’ visit, sparking a resurgence of hawkish rhetoric from the US and a jump in nationalistic fervor in China. Mainland media reports on the progress of the Dong Feng 21D “carrier killer” ballistic missile didn’t help.
On the economic side, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke spent the days before Hu’s visit broadening US criticisms of China beyond currency into intellectual property protection and market access. Hu fired back, taking the US to task for its monetary policy.
By the time he arrived in Washington, Hu had many fires to put out, unusually including some in the military arena. Initial reports suggesting that Hu was surprised by the J-20 test flight added weight to suspicions that the PLA’s political influence is waxing.
This is of particular concern to securing stability in East Asia, where strained military ties between China and the US put ongoing dialogue between Pyongyang and its neighbors in jeopardy. War games conducted between the US, Japan and South Korea toward the end of 2010 were as much a flex of Washington’s muscles in the face of China’s widening military reach as they were a warning to Kim Jong-il.
But with his presidenctial term nearing an end, Hu will want the effects of his US visit to be felt well past Beijing’s changing of the guard in 2012. The prospects for the signing of tens of billions of dollars worth of deals during Hu’s visit were a welcome indication that despite the rhetoric, both sides recognize the advantage of a more practical approach to building strong ties.