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China's President Gets His State Dinner, What Did Obama and America Get?

The sun has set on Chinese President Hu Jintao’s long sought-after state visit to the United States. President Hu moves on to Chicago before returning to China, but he appears to have successfully navigated the main event in Washington.

President Hu came to Washington with relatively limited objectives. He wanted symbolism of a full state visit to demonstrate to others in China that he was able to command no less diplomatic deference from the U.S. than his predecessor received. He also aimed to blunt or avoid criticism of China’s performance on human rights, economic, and national security affairs. Beyond this he sought to make no meaningful concession or take on any added responsibility.

Mission accomplished. A tried-and-true formula did its magic again. Promises to ease on currency, get tough on North Korea and Iran, well-crafted words on human rights, and of course a buying mission are all it takes for the Washington foreign policy establishment to suspend disbelief and forget that no meaningful action has been taken. And, sadly, reasonable people should not expect much to change now that the celebration is over.

I might be understood if this was America’s first time at bat in this game. Unfortunately President Obama has company when it comes to presidents who thought they got something from China by rolling out the red carpet.

Media reports were filled with expert and official awe at President Hu’s forward-leaning statement on the universality of human rights. And yet, this is what President Clinton got in 1997 when he hosted then President Jiang Zemin for a state visit: 

“I am also strongly of the view that on such issues as the human rights issue, discussions can be held on the basis of non-interference in the internal affairs of a country. And it goes without saying that as for the general rules universally abided by in the world, China also abides these rules.”

Fourteen years later, is Hu’s statement this week that much of an improvement? More importantly, have civil and political rights significantly improved since Jiang used the “universal” word in the White House?

Similar questions can be asked of promises made on North Korea by President Jiang to President Clinton, or President Hu to President Bush. Repeatedly we are told the Chinese have had it with their junior partner in Pyongyang, and then, what? The danger grows.

And this time, unnamed senior administration officials breathlessly praise progress on Iran that amounts to little more than a pause in a sustained pattern of actions that undermine multilateral sanctions. 

So, now that the 21-gun salute and champagne toasts are over, it might be useful to return to the worth standard by which this administration’s foreign policy should be judged,according to no less than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

“It is up to both of us [the United States and China] to translate high-level pledges of summits and state visits into action, real action on real issues.” 

With President Hu happily on his way, what are the odds we’ll see some “real action on real issues?” A good question for the new Congress to ask, repeatedly.

Stephen Yates is president of DC International Advisory and former deputy assistant to the vice president for National Security Affairs (2001-2005).

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