Chinese President Hu Jintao will receive full honors at the White House tomorrow. There will be a 21-gun salute in the morning and a state dinner in the evening.
The Obama administration is desperately trying to create a positive atmosphere after a tense year. The underlying theory is that rolling out the red carpet for the Chinese autocrat is a signal of cooperation that will eventually be reciprocated.
This is the way we would like relations with the Chinese to work, but the state visit is a mistake. The honor bestowed on Mr. Hu will only feed his sense of arrogance and make him even more difficult to deal with in the future.
How do we know this? This is not the first mistake of the administration when it comes to Beijing. The White House sent two signals of cooperation, one in February 2009 delivered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the other in November of that year delivered by Jeffrey Bader of the National Security Council. Both initiatives backfired, producing belligerence — the exact opposite of what we hoped for. Where we intended a gesture of friendship, Beijing saw an indication of weakness and pressed the advantage.
Unfortunately, last week we saw that the Chinese have not turned over a new leaf. They publicly humiliated Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he visited their capital. First came a dressing down over Taiwan, then the first flight test of the J-20, the Chinese stealth fighter. Finally, on the first day after he left their capital, state media carried hawkish comments of Chinese flag officers as they administered a public tongue-lashing of Secretary Gates.
Yet the defense secretary struck back. In Tokyo, Mr. Gates for the first time publicly said U.S. troops in Asia were there to deter China. This rhetorical shift indicates the administration may not be infinitely patient with hostile Chinese officials, civilian or military.
Although the Obama administration is committing a mistake by not canceling Hu Jintao’s visit, it is in fact starting to show some resistance to Beijing and not agreeing to whatever the Chinese want. At the White House briefing on Friday, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon would not comment on whether there would even be a post-summit communiqué — that’s how far apart Beijing and Washington are at the moment. The two powers will undoubtedly cobble something together at the last second — not to do so would be a debacle — but it will be a meager document, nothing like the 4,223-word U.S.-China Joint Statement, the comprehensive set of promises that followed the November 2009 Obama-Hu summit in Beijing.
The truth is that despite the general naiveté of the administration, we are hearing much less we-are-all-friends rhetoric. Not only is the tone of public comments changing, the Obama administration is apparently changing its thinking about China. When Secretary Clinton says China is not a friend, as she did last week, we know a reevaluation of China is underway.
If the state visit has any good outcome, it will be to further swell the heads of the visiting Beijing leaders and encourage them to show even more of their ugly sides. As the Chinese people say, the fox is now showing its tail.