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Is the Obama-Hu summit over already?

You can tell a lot about a major summit between world leaders by what happens in the weeks leading up to it. That's when staff scurry around trying to nail down "deliverables" -- agreements that might be signed, initialed, announced, dusted off, and signed again, that sort of thing -- and fine tune the optics of the upcoming meeting. Tensions are typically defused in advance. Good news is often played up to produce a positive mood.

That's just what has been happening in the run up to the visit of China's President Hu Jintao to Washington. The Chinese foreign minister blew through town last week, meeting with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Tom Donilon and allowing both sides to test out their language about how important the relationship is while also testing thrusts and parries on currency policy. Our North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth went to Beijing to seek progress on cooperatively managing the vexing Mr. Kim. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is in China right now seeking (unsuccessfully thus far) to reboot military cooperation that broke down in the wake of last year's decision to sell more arms to the Taiwanese.

At the same time, as is also typical with such a visit, we have members of Congress like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) flexing their muscles and warning that China had better adopt "fairer" currency policies or else. And sometimes we have seen other actions designed to send messages to the rest of the world to place the upcoming meeting in context -- or at least international actions that cast an important light on the upcoming meeting whether intentionally or otherwise.

Read these tea leaves and you can tell a lot about the largely formal high-level summit to come. In fact, these pre-summit periods are actually where the real work usually gets done with the most important summits typically being so carefully orchestrated that it's almost impossible for anything to actually spontaneously occur out of them.

So, what have we learned? Here are a few highlights:

  • The Chinese would like the meetings to go well. The announcement of a couple banking licenses last week is precisely the kind of commercial gifts the Chinese like to hand out as summit-related door prizes.
  • The Chinese are ambivalent about how the meetings go. Their pushback on U.S. calls for currency adjustments from the likes of Donilon and Clinton was firm but diplomatic.
  • The Chinese are perfectly willing to tell the United States to stuff it. Gates's effort to get military cooperation restarted was rebuffed in a way that was both embarrassing for the United States. and, rest assured, carefully cultivated. (Although getting that embarrassment out of the way this week rather than on the summit trip itself is also a part of deft trip management.)
  • The Chinese view the U.S. relationship as part of a bigger game. They are playing geopolitics much more creatively these days than ever before. The trip of China's vice premier to Britain, the announcement of a big PetroChina deal with Britain's Ineos, $4 billion in other deals in Britain, his earlier announcement of his government's purchase of almost $8 billion in Spanish government bonds, and the $ 11.3 billion worth of deals that were announced in Germany all suggest a desire to carefully balance their relations on both sides of the Atlantic. The support for Spain was most important triggering a market surge based on the belief that China would do what it could to prop up the eurozone. Of course, this also has the effect of propping up the euro and ensuring that China's currency doesn't become too strong against it which would impede exports to Europe -- China's biggest export market. That this also underscores just how carefully orchestrated their currency strategy is and is in its own way a subtle rebuff to the United States is also significant.
  • The United States will take what it can get from the Chinese. While the United States is making its points on currency and trade balances and while it will almost certainly raise human rights concerns, President Obama has thus far shown no appetite for a scrap with the Chinese or an ugly meeting. He needs China on North Korea, on Iran, and on global economic issues far too much and not only does he know it but the Chinese know he knows it and he knows they know that he knows it. The balance of power in this relationship has shifted dramatically in the past few years -- not entirely to the Chinese as some would have you believe, nor even away from a position of considerable strength for the United States, but toward something trending toward balance.

What the Chinese may not fully recognize is how charged the U.S. political atmosphere is when it comes to their country. China is seen as the rising rival and an unfair competitor and is one of the few foreign-policy topics with great relevance on Main Street. It used to be that U.S. views were dominated by business leaders' sense that China was where the future begins. But now this thinking is dominated by the broadly held view that China is where American jobs go when they leave here.

Between that and a growing sense that China is not being entirely constructive on issues like North Korea or proliferation or Pakistan, it is legitimate to ask whether the future of the relationship may grow somewhat tenser. Indeed, it is just as fair to ask whether it should.

The United States can ill afford to look weak in this relationship or it will be taken advantage of. Frankly, my view is that China is showing the United States up a bit with the way it has handled the Gates visit and the whole European mission of Mr. Li. It is also my sense that President Obama's visit to China was a bit awkward for the president, not his finest hour. He also appeared too weak -- and being shown up by the Chinese on currency around the G-20 meeting didn't really help. That's why, at this point, a little more visible toughness and self-confidence on the part of the United States and the president is precisely what this relationship needs to maintain the equilibrium that is in everyone's best interest.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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