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China-US summit: Which country gained the most?

China got all the pomp and stature of a state visit, while President Obama came off as more assertive than he did during his Beijing visit in 2009. But tangible results of the summit are less certain.

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Dancers from Chicago's McCormick Elementary School perform a traditional Chinese handkerchief dance for Chinese President Hu Jintao at Walter Payton College Preparatory School in Chicago on Friday.

Chris Walker/AP

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Before leaving Washington for a public-diplomacy tour in Chicago Friday, Chinese President Hu Jintao called for a “win-win” relationship between the United States and China.

While it may be too soon to gauge the full impact of Mr. Hu’s state visit on bilateral ties, it does seem that each country’s leader got a “win” from their meetings.

President Obama came off as more assertive with a rising China – certainly more than he had during what some critics viewed as a weak performance when he visited Beijing in late 2009. Mr. Obama put human rights on the table, insisted on a two-way street between the two countries in terms of economic access, and apparently pressed successfully (though in private) for increased Chinese pressure on North Korea.

For his part, Hu got all the pomp and stature of a state visit – very important to the Chinese. And he was seen as having enhanced his legacy as a pillar of China’s domestic economic transformation and its rise as a global power.

Yet the tangible results of the visit were less certain. Obama said publicly that the US will be looking for a stepped-up appreciation of China’s currency, but the high-profile currency battle between the two economic giants did not deliver any concrete developments. Recent commitments by the Chinese to make a concerted effort to respect foreign intellectual property rights took a few steps forward, but some US business leaders say they remain in a skeptical wait-and-see mode on an issue of do-or-die importance to America’s export sector. And while Hu did acknowledge in the two leaders’ press conference Wednesday that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,” those words were largely censored in China.

The result, in the eyes of some US-China experts, is that while the summit had points of success for each side, it probably did little to give the two key powers of the 21st century a more durable and tension-resistant relationship.

“The summit met both sides’ expectations,” says Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at the Nixon Center in Washington. Hu got the high level of protocol he craved to show the Chinese people back home, he says, and Obama laid out US expectations for China as a rising world power.

“But it’s not yet a bulletproof relationship,” Mr. Thompson adds, so the last decade’s pattern of “good times and bad times” is likely to continue. “The concern now,” he says, “is that the amplitude of the ups and downs will be greater in the period ahead” as China continues its ascent.

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For example, Thompson says: While the summit’s joint communiqué refers specifically to establishing military-to-military relations between the two countries – a good thing, he says – nothing was done to assure that such relations are “sustained” or above the fray of bilateral disagreements.

“There’s still nothing durable about those relations that makes them able to withstand an incident,” he says. “So despite the post-summit level of goodwill and warmth, everything would very likely deteriorate once again over the next round of [US] arms sales” to Taiwan.

Economic relations between the two countries are on more solid footing, US-China experts say, given the breadth and regularity of the economic dialogue between the two. Yet even in the economic realm, the summit’s “deliverables” may not have been all they were touted to be.

Closely scrutinized, the list of $45 billion in business deals and joint ventures that the White House announced – trumpeted as founts of nearly a quarter-million new American jobs – turned out to be a hodgepodge of some new, but also some already-announced or still-on-the-drawing-board projects. A portion of the ventures could end up exporting existing US jobs to China, according to some business leaders.

One clear “plus” for the US: China agreed in the joint statement to submit a revised proposal on its government procurement practices to the World Trade Organization by the end of the year. The US and other economic powers have said for years that China must abide by international standards and open its government procurement contracts to international competition.

China got a prized take-away as well: The two governments agreed that Vice President Xi Jinping, widely viewed as Hu’s heir apparent when Hu leaves office in 2012, will visit the US. Setting the next summit, with the intended Chinese leader, is considered by the Chinese to be a crucial acknowledgment of their political power transition.

Perhaps most crucial for Obama, he was apparently able to convince Hu of the consequences for China if it does not start pressuring North Korea to modify its belligerent behavior.

In the summit’s joint statement, China “for the first time” joins the US in expressing concern about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, says Susan Shirk, director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. Also in the statement, the two countries agreed that talks between the two Koreas should come before a return to international talks on the North’s nuclear program.

That last point was apparently agreed upon after Obama, at a private dinner Tuesday night, impressed upon Hu that the US would have to consider reinforcing its military presence in the region if the North was not brought under control. Obama has echoed concerns expressed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Beijing earlier this month that North Korea’s progress in missile development was quickly making it a US national-security threat.

One result, according to US officials, was South Korea’s announcement Thursday that it had agreed to hold defense talks with the North.

If those talks turn out to be a steppingstone to renewed six-party talks on North Korea, such talks are likely to be seen as a result, if in a roundabout way, of Hu’s state visit.

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