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The Immense Value of Incremental Progress

January 19, 2011

Against a backdrop of ice covered trees, national flags of China and the U.S. fly along Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House in Washington January 18, 2011. Chinese President Hu Jintao on Tuesday flew to the U.S. for a state visit. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Kaeleigh Forsyth, Contributor

Add mounting economic and military tensions with an upcoming election and you have a recipe for political paralysis during this week’s talks between China and the United States. Many issues will be addressed during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s delayed trip to Washington, including the appreciation of the Yuan, a strategy for subduing North Korea, the reform of China’s territorial claim strategy, and the reigning in of Beijing’s growing cyber capabilities; yet significant progress is not anticipated on any of these fronts.

Entering these discussions after years of deteriorating relations, China’s impending leadership transition will only serve to further handicap any potential progress. What is anticipated to result from these talks are a number of “new cooperative deals,” including minor concessions in sectors such as energy, environment, infrastructure, and technology. But how meager these agreements will really be deemed depends on how much value is placed on the diplomatic intangibles- evidence that these two superpowers are still capable of working together within the confines of civil discourse, as well as experience compromising with each other on issues of equal economic investment, seemingly insignificant as they may be.

With a “cold-war”-type confrontation looming overhead, a week of friendly dialogue may serve to be more valuable than it appears.  U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates reported after his visit to China last week that North Korea’s missile program will pose a threat to the U.S. within five years save mediation on China’s part. In regards to China’s resistance of an appreciating Yuan, it seems more likely that the U.S. will allow the already immense pressure in Congress to build than it does that any confrontational action will be taken during this week.  Considering this context, what value does maintaining a discursive foundation of civil diplomacy have, and how much effort can a country justify expending in its name before seeing significant political compromise?  This week may reveal insight into President Obama’s answer to these questions.

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