Friday, January 14, 2011


High-Level Framing
Or is it: Hu-Obama?

I've given a lot of thought to the proper framing of the state visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao from January 18-21 (also, to the improper framing of same, which will be the thrust of the second section of this posting). The importance of the US-China bilateral relationship has risen to the point where it is likely the most significant of its kind in the world today.

President Hu (his surname--I made some effort but could not find a proper English translation of that name; apparently the word has many different meanings depending on tone, inflection, and context) is expected to leave his job in 2012, and we already know the name of his provisional successor: Xi JinPing. That's probably one of the specified tasks of Hu's second Five-Year Plan--to name his successor, train him, and install him--and he's on schedule, under budget. Good technocrats, these Red Chinese.

There are at least a few major topics to which the two will need to devote substantial time during the work sessions. First, and most urgent, will be the opportunity to talk at length about North Korea behind its back. Awareness of this agenda item will surely get those uneasy folks' insecurity up, so they'll probably commit some sort of provocation (even if by some omission NK were not on the agenda, the North Koreans would assume that it is). The timing may this time be handy because Hu and Obama can discuss their response to it together (without the red phone, this time) and, perhaps, use their coordinated response(s) as a template for future handling of China's unruly pet nation. If NK waits until just after Hu steps on the plane to return home (it would seem a better tactic), then Obama and Hu can benefit from discussing during the meeting how they would respond, given a few likely scenarios by both nations' military planners.

Second, the economy, usually referred to in this country these days as those "jobs, jobs, jobs". The current development is China's having to ratchet back its economic growth through rises in interest rates, required because the inflation dragon has reared its head there. This may affect trade with the US and also reduce global growth. The alternative, though, would probably be greater inflation everywhere and an even tougher regime of rising interest rates and slowed growth, possibly even a renewed recession. Obama should signal recognition of the necessity of Hu's tamping on the brakes and patience with the consequences: he needs above all for the perception of recovery, just now really starting to be broadly accepted in the American public, to continue through the remainder of Hu's (and Obama's) terms, so a little Chinese braking is optimal.

Associated with the broad issue of short-term macroeconomic development is the question of revaluation of the Chinese currency (called either the yuan or renminbi) in relation to the US dollar. The Chinese have been allowing theirs to move slowly upward vs. ours, whereas some of our trade-balance-minded folks have been urging (demanding, bloviating) for it to move rapidly, or just to take out the controls and let the exchange move freely, determined by the market. They forget that the Chinese do not do either "rapidly" or "freely". Slow is what they will allow; since it is not strictly an internal affair, but a bilateral one, they may condescend to allow Obama, Geither, & Co. to weigh in on a desired target exchange rate.

Third on the agenda I would put coming to agreement--and here I don't mean just discussion, but actual agreement, with a communique and everything--on climate change policy. China and the US are numbers 1 and 2 respectively in greenhouse gas emissions, and on this one in particular the whole world will be watching to see what we can produce in the way of leadership.

There has been a real change--and for the better--in both the tone and the actions of the Chinese in this area in the past couple of years. Motivation is always tricky, but I would suggest that two reasons lie behind the changes: 1) they see the brown skies in much of China and realize that continuing on the bad old path is going to cause a domestic public health catastrophe; and 2) they are taking up the opportunity to develop green industries and become world leaders in this. At any rate, the facts are that the Chinese are the world leaders in producing solar panels and wind turbines, and have moved to the lead in the effort to produce clean energy with coal (which, like the US, it has in great quantity). At the last UN conference on climate change in Cancun in December, China announced it would no longer oppose firm limits on greenhouse gas emissions for developing countries like itself. The limits they would support are voluntary, and would be verified internally, rather than internationally, but this position is a key improvement and may, eventually, allow the #2 polluter, the US, to move from its own intransigent position against international policy on our pollutants.

President Obama is in a difficult position: he would like to do the right thing in this area, but he can not do anything that would be seen to--even possibly--reduce job growth. The last elections brought in a few tons of greenhouse gas-spouting Republican blowhards who do not recognize the validity of climate change science. As cap-and-trade or, even better, a carbon tax are political non-starters at present, something like the Chinese position--voluntary reductions in growth of greenhouse gas emissions--may be the best short-run strategy. These would be accomplished through the improved standards for autos, continuing investment in green technologies, and defending the EPA's statutory authority to regulate smokestack pollution. Finally, the UN conference produced an agreement to provide funding to developing countries to help them reduce greenhouse gas emissions; unpopular politically as it will be, the US owes it to all to announce some significant contribution to that fund, and this would be a good time (subject to Congressional approval, I'm afraid; and perhaps coupled with some sort of offsetting budget reduction announcement).

Fourth item might be to consider the modernization of the UN Security council. The five permanent members with veto powers are the five leaders of the winning side of World War II--the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia. A number of other countries have emerged in the 65 years since the UN was founded which are at least as important as Britain and France in today's geopolitics, and they want their voices heard. Meanwhile, China is reluctant to have its power diluted. I recommend a compromise, in which six countries--Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Nigeria--would get permanent membership in the Security Council, but without a veto (perhaps two of their "no" votes would constitute a veto).

Fifth and last would be the discussion of human rights. It doesn't have to be last in order on the agenda, but in priority, the Chinese will consider it last, and the Mandarin language version of the agenda which the Chinese will be utilizing would be the equivalent of "give the Americans shit about their own internal problems". The Chinese do not consider their one-party rule, suppression of dissent, political prisoners, or stifling of Internet content to be fit subjects for discussion in a summit, but the US will insist on bringing them up and the Chinese will parry these topics with accusations against our own policies, or lack thereof--such as the lack of gun control, fiscal responsibility, detainees in Guantanamo, military hegemonism, persecution of undocumented aliens, etc.

Theme Music for the Summit
Note: Sarcasm/facetiousness disclosure: it will be plentiful in the following

I thought we should honor Mr. Hu's visit with a theme, and naturally my thoughts went toward bad puns.

I used to have a colleague with the same surname, and we would sometimes immaturely tease her by calling her "first base"--a reference to the Abbott & Costello classic comedy routine, "Who's On First?" I would suggest that phrase could be used waggishly by President Obama, just at the edge of the microphone's range, in the moments prior to beginning the final, post-summit press conference--as our guest, Mr. Hu's turn at the mike should be first. (There are precedents for such Presidential humor in bad taste--remember President Reagan's microphone test when he pretended to announce a Russian nuclear attack and our massive retaliation?)

In terms of theme music, I think of one of my favorite rock bands, The Who (or, in this case, The Hu). Maybe one album from the catalog has a name (and their names often have these double meanings) that fits the event.

I could eliminate several of them as seemingly having no relevance: Tommy (no deaf, dumb, blind, or pinball), Quadrophenia (no four-way split personality in sight), Live at Leeds (wrong locale), Face Dances (not sure what that means), Maximum R&B (I could probably invent an "R" and "B" that could fit--"Renmin & Bi"?--but it wouldn't be rhythm and blues), Odds & Sods, the Kids are Alright (just agree on that principle, and move on), or Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy (won't touch that one).

Here are the finalists, then, and comments about their relevance:
Who (Hu) Sell Out--The "sellout" by the Chinese Communists, if you want to call it that, from Marxist/Leninist/Maoist command economics to a partially free economy partially directed by the one-party state, happened some 30 years ago, before Hu's time. Mr. Hu himself, I just saw, has a salary of about $10,000 per year, and I've heard no rumors that he's making big bucks on the side. There's also a subject-verb agreement issue.

Who (Hu) Are You--Again, subject-verb agreement. Mr. Hu may not be well-known to us, but it's a bit late now to get to know him, as he's moving on in a couple of years. As for the American China experts and our top foreign policy officials, they know him.

Who (Hu) By Numbers--This one is more difficult because of the multiple meanings of the original album title. The cover art suggests connecting the dots rather than painting by numbers, and the contents were a lot of catchy little numbers. While economic statistics will play a supporting role in the discussion, and there are some dots to join, I think the objective should be quality, not quantity.

A Quick One (Happy Jack)--This meeting is not the quick, one-day version, but a proper state visit. In terms of "Happy Jack" and its underground meaning, I will only comment that the meeting is of two men, not three.

Who's (Hu's) Next--It makes sense in this way: the title was not originally a question, and Mr. Hu is the next in the series of Chinese party technocrats to occupy his office. This meeting is not yet the time for planning for who's next; and Hu himself shouldn't be a novelty.

The Who Sings My Generation--Maybe, but which generation? The generation of which they sang was the baby boomers, particularly the older ones, and they have some concerns as they approach retirement. Both Hu and Obama are from the younger cohort of that broad demographic group, and this is their time to lead. I would argue, though, that the Who's perennial target group are the young, and, while that should be a particular concern here in America, it isn't likely to feature too importantly in Obama-Hu meeting topics.

It's Hard--Yes, it certainly is hard (meaning difficult) for Obama and Hu--the challenges of leading the World's Only Remaining Superpower and The Next Superpopwer are each mighty ones. This is not the time for whining about their personal, or national, complaints, though; it is a time for solving problems.

Endless Wire--The latest Who release might well have been called "Who's Last"--with John Entwistle's death, Pete Townshend possibly losing his hearing, and it being a fairly weak studio album accompanied by a truly pathetic live recording, one might even hope so. There may or may not be another summit with Obama in Hu's term (more likely, "a quick one"), but I think the concept of perpetually treading a tightrope in their own countries and in the delicate, complex issues they have to face in the bilateral relationship is one that each leader would understand well. Obama must stay true to his liberal principles, satisfy the moderates, and somehow deal with the reinvigorated right-wing Republicans; Hu must continue to tolerate, encourage, and even prop up free enterprise, while satisfying his party leadership's control freak values.

So, I would propose "Endless Wire" as the background music for their meeting. Given its dubious quality, probably keep the volume knob at '5' or less.

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

Jan. 19: Turns out Hu is 67 years old, which explains why this term is his last. Also suggests his office may not be as wearing as the POTUS.

On second thought, "Maximum RMB" would fit the US perspective on the summit pretty well. Not the shared perspective, though.