The Hu-Obama Summit: A Historical Perspective

Veteran diplomat offers long view on current tensions

Visiting US President Barack Obama walks beside Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) during the honor guard welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 17, 2009. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

By Nicholas Platt, Asia Society President Emeritus

Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama will meet next week, managers of a complicated relationship that has become too big and too close for comfort. The size and nature of our ties have changed dramatically since Nixon and Mao first met in 1972.

Back then, both men had to exert strong political will, at serious domestic political risk, to overcome in secrecy decades of hostility. Their common enmity toward the USSR created a strategic imperative that overrode bilateral differences about Taiwan, propelled formal US recognition of the People's Republic of China in 1979 and drove our relationship until the Soviets collapsed 10 years later.

Change started as the peoples of China and the US began to interact in the 1970s, hesitantly at first, but then in a rush during the 1980s and '90s. Americans and Chinese, encouraged by their governments, did what came surprisingly naturally—to trade, invest, travel, attend school, watch basketball and movies, and study each other's scientific institutes, museums, and concert halls. A link that had once been privately operated by a handful of officials—Premier Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger at either end of a secret line at the outset—became a huge fiber optic cable, with millions of messages exchanged daily, many of which neither government saw.

Interaction has created a multibillion dollar economic imperative which protected the relationship against the collapse of the USSR and the shocks of subsequent political crises. China's phenomenal economic development during these years has built a nascent superpower which requires strategic balancing in its own right.

Obama and Hu have already met several times, and state visits have become normal over the years. But the closer you are the more you rub, and friction over rebalancing the two economies has grown, along with rivalry between the military establishments. Global issues bristle, particularly climate change. Observers are asking if the relationship has not reached a tipping point.

Both the momentum of history and the challenges of current reality suggest that continuity will prevail, and that the two leaders will focus on designing a roadmap for their countries to cope with the discomfort of their differences and continue to work together. With the two economies inextricably intertwined, and both leaders facing internal difficulties of their own, they have little choice.


Nicholas Platt is President Emeritus of Asia Society and former ambassador to the Philippines and Pakistan. In 1972, as a young State Department officer, he accompanied President Nixon on his history-making trip to China that led to normalization of relations and went on to serve in the first US liaison office in Beijing.

Related links:
China 1972: Nicholas Platt's Home Movies
Read an excerpt from Nicholas Platt's Memoir China Boys