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Hither and Yon

Obama welcomes Xi: A matter of ‘optics’ and not much else

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
WASHINGTON -- China President Xi Jinping’s meeting with President Obama Friday is sure to be an exercise in double-and-triple talk that will sorely test the skills of both of them in papering over, covering up and otherwise evading issues that neither of them is going to be able to resolve.
The differences between the U.S. and China are so deep, so overwhelming, so broad as to raise the question: Why is President Xi getting a 21-gun salute at the White House on top of a state dinner and all the other folderol that goes with receiving the leader of a close friend?
Xi may be worthy of respect for the way he’s taken charge of China, gone after his foes and sought to bring about reforms, but he’s no friend of the United States. Rather, China is a potential foe in a contest for power and influence extending from the Western Pacific, around Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean.
Ok, Xi’s meeting some of the titans of high-tech America after arriving in Seattle on Wednesday before going on to Washington for Friday’s full-dress treatment may help. The clash between the U.S. and China is so basic, however, you have to wonder what magic formula could ease tensions for more than a few days of happy talk.
Here are just one of the insurmountable problems: The United States is counting on China to rein in North Korea. The Washington intelligentsia assumes that China convinced North Korea not to risk armed conflict across the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas last month. Instead of making good on Kim Jong-Un’s threat to fire on South Korea’s mega-loudspeakers, the North Koreans asked for negotiations and finally agreed to a statement expressing begrudging “regret” over the maiming of two South Korean sergeants whose legs were blown off by a North Korean mine.
Now the Americans are hoping and praying that the Chinese will talk the North Koreans out of firing a long-range missile, in the guise of a satellite, before the 70th anniversary on Oct. 10 of the founding of the Workers’ Party. If the North Koreans do conduct a long-range missile test, and if South Korea responds as promised by resuming the loudspeaker broadcasts, we would definitely have another mini-crisis in which South and North Korea might again threaten to fire on one another across the DMZ.
But then, what’s the trade-off for China restraining its North Korean protectorate, which counts on China for all its oil and half its food? Would the U.S. be willing to cool it on demands that China stop expanding its bases on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea? How far would the U.S. go in defending the interests of the Philippines, which has no way of defending its fishermen and has only a tenuous grip on two of the islands?
Oh sure, National Security Adviser Susan Rice declared the right of U.S. planes and ships to operate anywhere in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own, but is the U.S. willing to fight for that right? And what about the U.S. pledge to stick by Japan in the Senkakus in the East China Sea? I have a feeling both sides would prefer to skip over the Senkakus, which China calls Diaoyu and says are Chinese from eons ago though no Chinese have ever lived there.
These island disputes, though, comprise only one area of irreconcilable differences. Just as important, maybe more so, is the U.S. trade deficit with China has soared way above $300 billion a year amid great arguments over the worth of the devalued Chinese renminbi. It’s unimaginable that Xi is going to listen to pleas for revaluing Chinese currency while China is mired in economic problems that are rippling through stock markets around the world. Chances of China making serious economic concessions are about as minimal as China’s agreeing to stop its activities in the Spratlys and declare the South China Sea an international free zone.
But wait a minute. The Xi-Obama summit has got to come to a happy conclusion, right?
Haven’t the script writers in Beijing and Washington been crafting declarations on which all can agree. Look for some assurances on cyber-hacking, cyber warfare and theft of intellectual property. And maybe they’ll throw in some hearty affirmations of their mutual desire to deal with environmental issues. Sure. What else?
Oh yes, how about worries about international terrorism ― maybe Xi can offer assurances that his people aren’t exploiting the laws as a tool against U.S. business competition. None of this will mean much, but free-flowing verbiage should enable both presidents to pronounce the summit a success. Isn’t that what they mean when they talk about “the optics”?
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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