NPR

With Eye On Domestic Politics, Superpowers Meet

Vice President Joseph Biden welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao to Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday. Analysts say the Chinese leader's visit could be among the most pivotal in U.S. history. Hu meets with President Obama on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

The Washington visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao brings together the leaders of the world's two superpowers. Analysts say it could be among the most pivotal state visits in U.S. history. It will also be among the most complicated. President Obama and President Hu each have to deal with influential domestic constituencies, and the two countries are locked together at multiple levels.

"There are so many different bureaucracies that are dealing with each other across the Pacific that the two presidents, to a certain degree, are maestros, trying to orchestrate all the various parts of their governments," says David Finkelstein, a China expert at the Center for Naval Analyses.

The United States is a mature nation, with well-developed institutions and years of practice in superpower diplomacy. China is rising so fast, it can hardly manage its own growth. Though it's not a democracy, it has some of democracy's problems.

President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao hope to use the current state visit to strengthen relations following a difficult year. But they will also wrestle with several contentious issues:

  • Trade: U.S. concerned with protecting American intellectual property and opening Chinese markets to manufacturing and tech

  • Currency: Another round of the now perennial argument about value of yuan

  • Korea: U.S. wants help tamping North Korea's aggression

  • Human rights: Fresh to mind following Nobel Peace Prize for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo

  • Geopolitics: U.S. nervous about China's muscle-flexing in South China Sea, while China concerned about Obama's recent meetings with its regional rivals

Chinese Currency's Value

"Even authoritarian political systems have politics," says Evan Feigenbaum, Asia director at the Eurasia Group. "Chinese leaders are trading off contending policy views all the time."

Economic policies are among the most contentious. One group in China is linked to the big state enterprises and the big exporters. They are looking for help from the Chinese government, such as the maintenance of a low currency exchange rate so their products can be sold at lower prices on the international market.

U.S. exporters suffer a comparative disadvantage, and this is where Obama has to deal with politics: Many members of Congress favor a get-tough policy with China on the currency issue.

Obama and his team have to recognize that Hu and his team will be sensitive to the interests of the Chinese exporters. But there are other economic interest groups in China, ones the Obama administration may be tempted to embrace.

"You do have slightly more reformist people within the government," says Eswar Prasad, a professor of trade policy at Cornell University and former China economist for the International Monetary Fund. "[There is] a group of fairly influential academics who feel that, in fact, these firms would do a lot better if they were exposed to foreign competition, and that this is where China's future lies."

A Civilian-Military Disconnect?

This issue of divided views may also apply with respect to the Chinese military. After visiting Beijing last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he felt there was a "disconnect" between the civilian and military leadership.

Finkelstein, formerly the top China analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, suspects that any such disconnect may derive from the dearth of Chinese civilians in positions of responsibility over the armed forces.

"We have a Chinese military that is civilian-poor," he says. "There are not a lot of suits running around the Chinese defense establishment. It's mostly all uniforms, except for Hu Jintao and [Vice President] Xi Jinping."

Chinese military leaders have lately sounded more aggressive in their rhetoric than their civilian counterparts, just as some economic officials favor more open policies than others. But it may be dangerous for the Obama administration to try to support some interests in China and ignore others.

"We should not choose who are the friends in China [and] who are the enemies in China," says Cheng Li, director of research at the Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. "It's not that simple. We should not use ideological terms, saying, 'These are reformers, these are communists, these are hardliners, these are the liberals.' Sometimes liberals on the economic front can be hardliners on the political front."

And there is a final complication that the Obama administration must keep in mind. Next year, there will be a massive leadership change in the Chinese Communist Party. Hu will go, probably to be replaced by Xi. Beijing's policies may change.

That does not mean Hu is a lame duck on this state visit. In China, the outgoing leadership has broad powers to select the incoming leadership.

"If the visit is perceived as very successful, Hu Jintao will have more leverage in terms of appointing top leadership," Li says. "If it is considered a failure, it will undermine his capacity to appoint more people to leadership positions."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The world has two superpowers again and their leaders are meeting here today. China's President Hu Jintao is here in Washington. He had a private dinner last night with President Obama and will be honored tonight with a glittering state dinner. In between, some hard work - on issues from economics to security.

The stakes are high, partly because of the current domestic politics on both sides, and also because the U.S./China relationship could dominate world politics for much of this century.

NPR's Tom Gjelten explains.

TOM GJELTEN: If this were just a meeting between two powerful heads of state it would be important enough. But it's two different systems, each one with its own set of actors and interest groups. The United States and China are competitors, but they're also interlocked at many levels.

It makes for a very complicated relationship, says China expert David Finkelstein, from the Center for Naval Analyses.

Mr. DAVID FINKELSTEIN (China Expert, Center for Naval Analyses): There are so many different bureaucracies that are dealing with each other across the Pacific that the two presidents, to a certain degree, are maestros trying to orchestrate all the various parts of their governments to move this relationship to a much more cooperative footing.

GJELTEN: The United States is a mature nation, with well developed institutions and years of practice in superpower diplomacy. China is a rising nation, rising so fast it can hardly manage its own growth. Though it's not a democracy, it has some of democracy's problems.

Mr. EVAN FEIGENBAUM (Chief Asia Analyst, Eurasia consulting group): Even authoritarian political systems do have politics.

GJELTEN: Evan Feigenbaum is Asia direction at the Eurasia consulting group.

Mr. FEIGENBAUM: Chinese leaders are trading off contending policy views all the time.

GJELTEN: Contending views, for example, on economic policy. One group is linked to the big state enterprises and the big exporters. They're looking for help from the Chinese government, a subsidized exchange rate, for example, so their products sell at lower prices on the international market. This hurts US exporters. And this is where President Obama has to deal with politics. Many members of Congress favor a get tough policy with China on the currency issue. President Obama and his team have to recognize that President Hu and his team will be sensitive to the interests of the Chinese exporters. But economist Eswar Prasad, of Cornell University, says there are other interest groups in China, ones the Obama Administration may be tempted to reach out to.

Mr. ESWAR PRASAD (Economist, Cornell University): You do have slightly more reformist people within the government, and especially a group of fairly influential academics, who feel that, in fact, these firms would do a lot better if they were exposed to foreign competition, and that this is where China's future lies.

GJELTEN: This issue of divided views may also apply with respect to the Chinese military. After visiting Beijing last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he felt there was a disconnect between the civilian and military leadership.

David Finkelstein thinks one of the problems is that President Hu and his vice president, Xi Jenping, are the only civilians with positions of responsibility over the Chinese armed forces.

Mr. FINKELSTEIN: So we have a Chinese military that is civilian poor, not a lot of suits running around the Chinese defense establishment. It's mostly all uniforms, except for Hu Jintao and Xi Jenping.

GJELTEN: Chinese military leaders have lately sounded more aggressive in their rhetoric than the civilians, just as some economic officials favor more open policies than others. But it may be dangerous for the Obama Administration to try to support some interests in China and ignore others.

Mr. CHENG LI (China Analyst, Brookings Institution): We should not choose who are the friends in China, who are the enemies in China. It's not that simple.

GJELTEN: Cheng Li is a China analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. LI: We should not use ideological term to see these are the reformers, these are the communists, these are the hardliners, these are liberals. Sometimes liberals, on the economic front, could be hardliners on the political front.

GJELTEN: And a final complication the Obama Administration has to keep in mind. Next year, there will be a massive leadership change in the Chinese Communist Party. President Hu will go, probably to be replaced by Vice President Xi. Beijing policies may change. That does not mean Hu is a lame duck on this trip. In China, the outgoing leadership has broad powers to select the incoming leadership. And Cheng Li says the more Hu accomplishes on this visit, the more power he'll have next year.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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