A Welcome Case of Putting Caution before Ideology

Article excerpt

International Studies

Whenever anyone claims talks as the "most important in 30 years", you can bet your bottom dollar that they will produce little. Indeed, half the objective of diplomacy - more than half, many would say - is to prevent talks between leaders leading to friction rather than producing results.

So no doubt it will be with the state visit of China's President, Hu Jintao, to the US this week. There's plenty of room for discord. Of that there is no doubt. The US sees China as pursuing a deeply self-centered policy of economic growth and resource acquisition that is damaging to US economic interests and its position in the world. The Chinese equally see the US as locked into a view of themselves as the sole hyperpower that won't accommodate China's own rightful status as the rising superpower.

Most public are the tensions over protectionism and China's manipulation of its currency. Most serious is the arms race developing between the two countries, as Beijing rushes to develop the technology and the arms to challenge America's role as the big boy on the Asian bloc.

The idea, however, that the meeting between Presidents Obama and Hu marks a clash of the Titans - with the fading heavyweight trying to put the young contender in his place - just misses the point. This not a power play, for all the tendency of US think-tanks and former officials to define international relations in those terms.

It's not like that. Internal politics drives external politics far more than ideology or any strategic view. That is particularly true of the US and America at the moment. On his back foot after the mid-term elections, and facing a Congress that is fiercely nationalistic, Obama wants more than anything to see talks that seem constructive, and to keep the pressures off his back. So with Beijing. Mr Hu's main concern has to be with maintaining economic growth at a time of rapidly rising inflation, and to ensure a secure handover of power when he ends his second term in office next year.

The fear always on these occasions is that it is precisely domestic pressures which force a sudden public spat. Pursued by the accusation that he is soft on America's enemies, Obama may feel impelled to show his macho credentials on currency or China's record on human rights. Conscious of his need to show that the US is treating China as an equal not a junior, Mr Hu may equally need to respond to any criticism in kind.

America's weakness at the moment is that Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined its force as a military power whilst the financial crisis has upset its reputation for commercial pre-eminence. China's weakness is that its economy is overheating at home while its neighbours in Asia resent, and feel powerless against, its overwhelming weight. …