Stephen M. Walt

What Obama should NOT say to Hu Jintao

I don’t know what President Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao will say to each other during their summit meeting this week. But based on my conversations and discussions in Vietnam this week, I think I know one thing that Obama should not say. I have given several lectures since my arrival here, and met ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

I don’t know what President Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao will say to each other during their summit meeting this week. But based on my conversations and discussions in Vietnam this week, I think I know one thing that Obama should not say.

I have given several lectures since my arrival here, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials.  One theme that has come up repeatedly is the fear that the United States and China will reach some sort of great power condominium. at the expense of the weaker powers in the region. There is clearly considerable concern that the United States will "do a deal" with China, in effect granting it a free hand in its neighborhood in exchange for concessions elsewhere.

I’ve tried to explain to my audiences here that this is very unlikely. Realism tells you that the two most powerful states in the international system tend to be very wary of each other, and find it difficult (though of course not impossible) to cooperate, particularly on core issues of national security. Some sort of "G-2" condominium would be difficult to negotiate and hard to sustain, because both sides would worry that the other was getting the better part of the deal.

The immediate problem, however, is that both China and the United States have some incentives to make the summit a success, and to mask or minimize differences under a veil of flattering diplomatic language. Moreover, China’s neighbors are somewhat ambivalent themselves: they don’t want to be dominated by China, but they also don’t want a "Cold War" in the region. This situations gives the United States and China reasons to "act nice," even if both are aware of some significant underlying differences, and it may tempt the Obama administration to remain silent on some key areas of disagreement, such as China’s territorial claims.

So President Obama needs to be careful. His normal instinct, as we’ve seen repeatedly, is to play the role of conciliator, to avoid setting clear red lines, and to look for whatever deals he can get. My guess is that his advisors will also be encouraging him to avoid any sort of confrontational language, and Secretary of State Clinton has already emphasized the U.S. desire for "real action, on real issues." If the United States and China can make progress on currency issues, North Korea, and climate change, then they can view the summit as a success and other states in Asia will not be overly alarmed.

But he also needs to avoid giving the impression that all the United States cares about is a good relationship with China, and he certainly does not want to convey the idea that Beijing and Washington are getting together to divide up the world, or that the United States is ready to make any concessions on China’s territorial claims in the South China sea or elsewhere.  People here in Southeast Asia are watching the summit very closely, and they will probably over-interpret the normal diplomatic niceties in any case. They will also be alert to issues that aren’t mentioned, and will be worried if the two leaders appear to be getting along too well.

Lastly, bear in mind that this is just one meeting.  No matter what gets said by either side, or what agreements they do or do not reach, this meeting is not going to determine the future of Sino-American relations or the future of the U.S. position in Asia. There are enduring structural features — both economic and strategic — that will exert lasting effects on how those features of contemporary world politics evolve, and it would be a mistake to put too much weight on just one meeting. But I still hope the president chooses his words with great care, and keeps that smile of his in check. 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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