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Summing Up the U.S.-China Summit

Important Baby Steps

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama talks with China's President Hu Jintao at the start of the morning plenary session at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. The two leaders made progress at a summit this month on a range of shared issues.

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President Barack Obama is taking the right approach in treating China as a key partner on global challenges by emphasizing the need for joint problem solving on his recent trip. But no one said it would be easy to cooperate with China’s leaders—or thrilling.

Case in point: the joint statement released by President Obama and his counterpart Hu Jintao. The document is remarkable in scope, but shows that the most we can expect on our shared agenda is incremental progress.

A presidential summit is what they call in government an “action-forcing event.” When heads of state meet and the cameras roll, the foreign policy bureaucracies of both nations are motivated to go for the gold. The results of the summit likely represent the most the United States and China could both sign off on at this moment. These gains are not earth shattering, but they unquestionably represent forward movement in some areas.

The most specific and ambitious plans came in climate and energy. In addition to throwing support behind a binding deal at Copenhagen, the two sides agreed to launch, among other programs:

  • An electric car initiative
  • A joint clean-energy research center
  • A partnership on developing clean coal technologies
  • A collaboration to help China develop an accurate greenhouse gas emissions inventory
  • A U.S.-China Energy Cooperation Program to bring the private sectors of both nations into the clean-energy transformation so necessary for both nations to undertake

On the economy, less specific plans were announced but the two presidents reaffirmed the role of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations as the premier international leadership forum as well as the “cooperative process on mutual assessment” agreed to by the G-20 last month. This refers to an initiative announced at the recent G-20 summit in Pittsburgh whereby member countries will submit their macroeconomic plans to one another for review.

This G-20 review process could prompt uncomfortable exposure for the Chinese on their undervalued currency, so their recommitment to it is welcome. And though China did not make any new pledges on the value of the renminbi at the summit, the central bank earlier indicated a new flexibility about determining its value, and President Hu vowed, again, to continue to move toward a more domestic demand-led economic growth model. The other side of this needed bilateral rebalancing came in the form of a U.S. promise to rein in its budget deficits over the long term.

The two sides also agreed to push for the reform of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and to provide more resources to these multilateral institutions. That’s good news, and would signal a change if it comes to pass. As a recent report of mine describes, China is engaged in the international system but has not yet used its clout to strengthen international institutions and is decidedly avoiding a leadership role on most global challenges.

Also included in the joint statement were promises to increase cooperation in counterterrorism, agriculture, and pandemic disease. You get the idea: lots of issues, lots of pledges. As they are implemented, though, these could really matter. Each could mean greater safety for individual, ordinary Americans—from terror plots, tainted food, and swine flu.

Ultimately, that is why the relationship with China is so important. Beijing holds big cards on threats that can harm Americans. As a growing export market for U.S. goods and services, it also represents a partial answer on how to generate new U.S. jobs.

But let us be clear—they need us, too. Media stories have played on the theme of China’s rise and America’s decline. But American global leadership is real, it continues, it benefits the Chinese in many ways, and they know it. Interdependence works both ways. America being out in front is what allows China to take a back seat on many global issues.

The difficulty the United States faces in the future will be persuading China to help more in solving global problems—as the earlier mentioned report details—while at the same time being able to live with the reality that China’s leaders are not going to follow the U.S. playbook when it does not serve their interests. The lack of emphasis at the first Obama-Hu presidential summit on pressuring Iran on its nuclear program and the “agree-to-disagree” outcome on human rights and on Tibet illustrate this clearly.

But perhaps the new unilateral U.S. initiative announced at the summit—to send 100,000 American students to China over the next four years—will be the most important outcome from President Obama’s China visit. That program will pay future dividends in a greater understanding of this pivotal power among the American people and provide the Chinese who encounter these students a better sense of us, too.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. She is the author of “China’s New Engagement in the International System: In the Ring, but Punching Below its Weight.” She blogs at worldfocus.org/pivotal power.

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