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US-China relations: Hu's the man

Updated On: Jan 28, 2011

This article featured in the South China Morning Post on January 28, 2011 and in TODAY (Singapore) on January 27, 2011

One hilarious artefact of the George W Bush years is a YouTube video in which comedians imitate then President Bush and United States Secretary of State Rice discussing China. Made in 2003, soon after Mr HuJintao first came into office, Mr Bush asks who is the President of China. The video updates the old skit by Abbott and Costello: "Who's on First?", confusing the question "who" with the answer "Hu".

The recently concluded visit by President Hu to the US should yield no similar jokes. It was clear that the US administration knows Mr Hu and gave considerable attention to the visit. Such is the importance of China today in the post-crisis world.

Even more, it is clear that Mr Hu has studied and understood America. Onwhat could be his last official visit to the US before a new-generationleadership takes over, Mr Hu steadily and cannily avoided pitfalls. Impressive, when we consider that the US-China relationship has not beengoing well over the last year.

What to say to complaints that American jobs have been unfairly "exported" to Asia and especially China? Respond by pointing out that Chinese demand has created 14 million jobs worldwide, and agree to US$45billion ($57.6 billion) in US export deals that would support 235,000 jobs across 12 American states.

How to deal with accusations of currency manipulation by the US Congressand others? Simply guide the yuan to a new high just before the Summit and suggest that a rise in the long term would be natural.

What about grumbles by big American businesses about treatment in China?Dole out US$19 billion and US$2.5 billion in deals to Boeing and GE, respectively.

The Tea Party revolution evident in the mid-term elections has shown a restive element in American politics, and the Obama administration cannot afford to be conciliatory. It was Mr Hu who tried to respond to the mood and manage American perceptions.

Did anyone expect otherwise? Well, 2010 has shown a more assertive China. At the global level, China has not given in to calls to accept a sharply higher peg for its yuan or stem its surpluses. On Asian issues, the South China Sea, the Senkaku islands and the Korean peninsula have made other Asians more wary about Beijing and reinforce ties to the US.

But Chinese leaders know better than to give more cause for angst and anger when visiting America; Mr Hu instead stuck to a more circumspect script stressing economic opportunities.

Security and military concerns had been aired the week before when the US Defence Secretary went to Beijing. The Korean peninsula was discussedbut behind closed doors.

On human rights, Mr Hu admitted "a lot still needs to be done". This mayseem a rare admission, especially after the Chinese so vehemently protested the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the jailed Chinese writer, Liu Xiaobo. But even this was contextualised by Chinese priorities for economic and social development.

Add this to the billion-dollar deals, and American attitudes to China are predictably softened and balkanised. Whenever some human right activist criticises China, an American CEO will remind policy-makers about the importance of business ties and market access to China. This has been a tested formula for China in the past and one that Mr Hu reinvigorated on this trip, after problems last year with American corporate giants GE and Google.

Did Mr Obama want something else from China? No one can reasonably expect the complex and almost existential issues between the current andrising powers to be solved at this meeting. It was good enough that, after months of tension, the mood was calmed - for the present at least.

In this way, President Obama struck a useful balance. He touched on difficult issues without pushing China into a corner and provoking a defensive, shrill response that could worsen relations.

One day perhaps a confrontation may prove unavoidable. Differences are deepening in the post-crisis period and are becoming more difficult to manage.

But for now, the two leaders have reassuringly avoided mishap in the world's most important relationship. Like a duo act in an intricate choreographed performance, they have played out their parts.

Which of the two has taken the lead in the twinned performance? Who is more in charge of managing the US-China relationship? Yes, perhaps for the moment, Mr Hu is.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide From The USA.