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Updated: January 19, 2011 21:57 IST

Tough negotiations ahead for Hu, Obama

Narayan Lakshman
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President Barack Obama walks with China's President Hu Jintao during a state arrival ceremony on Wednesday in Washington.
AP President Barack Obama walks with China's President Hu Jintao during a state arrival ceremony on Wednesday in Washington.

Since he arrived in Washington on Tuesday Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit has entirely dominated the attention of the White House’s protocol army. However if recent statements by senior administration officials are anything to go by, official bonhomie may give way to tense negotiations by Wednesday evening, when Mr. Hu will attend a press conference with United States President Barack Obama.

In their opening remarks at the South Lawn of the White House the Chinese President clearly emphasised his hope that his visit would “increase mutual trust, enhance friendship, deepen cooperation, and push forward the positive, cooperative, and comprehensive China-U.S. relationship for the 21st century.”

He added that “China and the U.S. should respect each other’s choice of development path and each other’s core interests,” possibly an oblique reference to China’s interest in Taiwan. Until recently China had suspended all military-to-military ties with the U.S. after the latter sold arms to Taiwan in 2009.

In turn Mr. Obama struck a positive but balanced tone in his remarks saying that, while “The previous 30 years had been a time of estrangement for our two countries... the 30 years since have been a time of growing exchanges and understanding.”

He also hinted at the U.S.’ concerns on human rights in China when he noted, “History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just, when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being.”

The tenor of Mr. Obama’s comments appeared to jibe with recent comments made by senior officials in his administration who have, in the past few weeks, underscored policy dissonance on thorny economic, social and military issues between the two countries.

Last week U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner reiterated the U.S. view that “a stronger yuan is in China's own best interests, because it would help tame rising inflation that has become a key risk to China's rapid growth,” according to reports. Official anxiety regarding trade imbalances has also grown, focussing in particular on U.S. companies’ lack of access to China’s markets.

Similarly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech on Friday that China’s human rights record needed to improve, in particular criticising in particular its imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

In a similar critical message issued during a meeting with Chinese Minister of National Defence General Liang Guanglie, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates hinted that the China’s development of a stealth aircraft and its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea were matters of serious concern.

While trade, currency, human rights and military development issues are clearly of much concern in the Obama White House, it may find itself groping for levers to persuade Mr. Hu to make concessions where it matters.

A litmus test of how willing Mr. Hu is to consider please for policy reform will come later on Wednesday when, along with Mr. Obama, he will interact with a group of 18 American and Chinese CEOs and hear their requests for greater market access in China.

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