Of U.S.-China Summits, Past and Present

One way to judge the prospects of President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States this week is to place it in the context of previous China-U.S. summit meetings.

The first might be termed “world changing” summits. Such was the case with President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 — truly a tectonic event in geopolitics — and Deng Xiaoping’s triumphant tour of the United States and his meeting with Jimmy Carter in 1979.

These summits changed the dynamics of international politics by forging common strategic purpose and redrawing the Cold War chessboard.

Another model is the meeting dedicated to “bilateral institutionalization,” which produces long lists of agreements that bind the two government bureaucracies together across a range of issues — science and technology, education, law enforcement, military, environment, energy, and so on.

This, too, was exemplified in Deng’s 1979 visit, and also in President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 visit to Beijing and Jiang Zemin’s 1997 visit to Washington, when new institutional momentum was needed following the eight year estrangement produced by the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Then there have been “place holding” summits aimed at maintaining contact and stabilizing ties during periods of domestic uncertainty. Such was the case with President Gerald Ford’s meeting with Mao Zedong in 1975, when both political systems were in tumult following Watergate and the succession struggle in anticipation of Mao’s passing.

Next are the “celebratory” summits, held at times of broad harmony in the relationship. Such was the case with George H.W. Bush’s visit to Beijing in early 1989, Bill Clinton’s eight-day tour of China in 1998, and Hu Jintao’s summit with George W. Bush in Washington in 2006.

These occurred when relations were largely free of irritants, the atmospherics were very positive and effusive, and the two governments found much more to agree than differ on.

There have also been “crisis management summits.” One was Bill Clinton’s meeting with Jiang Zemin in Seattle in 1993 and Jiang’s 1997 state visit to the United States, both in the aftermath of the Tiananmen-induced estrangement.

George W. Bush’s October 2001 meeting with Jiang Zemin in Shanghai came on the heels of the largest-ever package of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the EP-3 spy plane crisis, and the 9/11 attacks. Bush’s state visit to China in 2002 was similarly aimed at stabilizing strained relations.

Finally, there have been what may be described as “dashed expectations” summits. Such was clearly the case with President Obama’s November 2009 state visit to China (for which Hu’s visit this week is a return engagement).

The U.S. side went to Beijing with high expectations of gaining China’s partnership on a wide range of issues of global issues. The two sides even produced a visionary joint statement to this end.

But Beijing’s minute control of Obama’s time in China, combined with a series of annoyances that erupted immediately thereafter and continuing over the past year, soured expectations on both sides.

So, when considering this past variety of Chinese-American summits, what are we to expect from this one?

I think that in the context of the six types described above, this summit portends to be a hybrid between the “place holding,” “crisis management,” and “dashed expectations” varieties.

It will be a place-holding summit because of the political transitions taking shape in both countries. Next year, at the 18th Communist Party congress, Hu Jintao is expected to retire from his trifecta positions of state president, Communist Party general secretary and Central Military Commission chairman, and an entire new leadership — the so-called “fifth generation leadership” — will come to power in China.

In the United States, President Obama will be running for re-election. Both sides sense a need to induce some continuity in advance of a transitional period.

It will be a crisis-management summit not because there has been any single recent crisis in the relationship, but because there has been a cumulative crisis brewing in the relationship over the past year.

Until the past month or so, when both sides have tried to improve the atmosphere, there has been a progressive hemorrhaging in ties across the board, caused by a series of economic frictions (over currency, trade, investment, intellectual property, hidden subsidies, exports controls, protectionism); regional tensions (over North Korea, Iran, India, Japan, South China Sea); military confrontations (over U.S. surveillance in China’s exclusive economic zone and exercises in the Yellow Sea) and concerns (over China’s air, naval, and ballistic missile development); diplomatic disagreements (over Taiwan arms sales, the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo and China’s human rights record).

Taken together, these issues have taken a cumulative toll on the relationship, and the summit meeting is accordingly intended, in large part, at contributing some much needed stability to an unstable relationship.

Finally, we are likely to again witness American disenchantment with China following the summit.

In several high-profile speeches over the past week, the U.S. secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce and Treasury have all put down a series of markers on what the United States expects from China in forging a cooperative relationship in the future.

These may be reasonable expectations, but they are not likely to be met by Beijing, certainly not in their entirety.

China is simply too domestically preoccupied to become the global partner Washington seeks and, in any event, is deeply suspicious of U.S. motives. Other American requests, concerning human rights and economic liberalization in China, also run counter to Beijing’s political priorities.

Thus there is a real danger of U.S. disappointment over Beijing’s inability and unwillingness to deliver and meet Washington’s expectations.

So the summit will likely produce some much needed stability, particularly going into the next two years of domestic political transitions, but will also likely result in U.S. disappointment and unrealized potential for a real China-American partnership.