Former AIG Chairman Maurice “Hank” Greenberg waited outside the Ritz Carlton in a very long line of well-heeled Washingtonians waiting to be allowed by the organizers to access air-conditioning and get into the event ballroom. I clicked my iPhone weather application and it was 89 degrees outside — high humidity. Lots of old people in that line.
The event was organized by the National Committee on US-China Relations, the US-China Business Council and a long roster of co-sponsoring groups.
Some DC political players in the line deserved the heat — others didn’t.
But what the powerful and connected were there for was the power dinner of the two day long US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
The luminaries were out in full force. One seasoned observer of American foreign policy and a probable heavyweight Obama emissary one day told me before the dinner began: “Never have so many of the great and mighty been assembled to hear so little. . .”
Another Democratic national security icon there told me before the dinner doors finally opened after an extensive reception, “Very little will be said here — but what is more interesting is to note what is not said. . .”
Those I connected with or saw at the dinner included Ambassador designate to China and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., former US Ambassador to China and Indonesia and Wilson Center Kissinger Institute Director Stapleton Roy, Henry Kissinger himself, former Beatles super aide and global impresario Peter Brown, US Institute of Peace chief and key player in opening China Richard Solomon, uber political/poll commentator Charlie Cook, Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein, former Secretary of the Treasury and chief spear-carrier for hyper-neoliberalism (aka “Rubinomics”) Robert Rubin, State Department Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter, former State Department Chief Legal Counsel and David Addington-foe inside the Bush administration John B. Bellinger III. . .
. . .former New Jersey Governor and “What Happened to my Republican Party” Republican moderate Christine Todd Whitman, former AID Deputy Administrator Ambassador Hattie Babbitt and her former presidential candidate husband Bruce Babbitt, newly appointed IFES President William Sweeney, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chief International Economics Advisor to Senator John Kerry Heidi Crebo-Rediker, former Hong Kong Chief Executive and CPCC Member CH Tung, Center for Non-Violent Conflict patron Peter Ackerman, former US Trade Representative Carla Hills, Peterson Institute for International Economics President C. Fred Bergsten, former Middle East Quartet Chief and World Bank President James Wolfensohn (who was also out in the stultifying heat in a long line outside the Ritz for a long time), global finance expert and former Citigroup Vice Chairman Michael Klein, US-China Business Council Chair and Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, Former State Department Counselor and Clinton Envoy for North Korea negotiations Wendy Sherman, National Journal economics columnist Bruce Stokes, and a whole slew of others. . .
I took a bundle of notes for the dinner — hoping something memorable worth writing about would be said.
It happened only once in real terms. China Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Dai Bingguo said:
Don’t Lose Any Sleep over China!
The crowd sort of chuckled, and that was the most tense moment of the evening. The rest was an incredibly upbeat, tummy-rubbing night of mutual admiration.
But it was valuable to be there and to see starkly clarified what the priorities of Barack Obama and China President Hu Jintao are: make the US-China relationship as smooth as possible — no public expression of distance or difference on anything from climate change to human rights to defense concerns to currency levels.
Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner shared charming vignettes about their counterparts — Dai Bingguo in Clinton’s case and State Council Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Clinton talked about agreeing with Dai to always bring pictures of their kids and grandkids to these meetings to remind themselves and their delegations of the importance of what they were discussing and its impact on the future.
Geithner, whose father Peter Geithner used to be the Ford Foundation’s China director and was known to Wang Qishan, laid out the only substantive note of the evening. He said that the US and China coming together the way it had in the last two days would send “positive market signals” to the rest of the world — and that America knew that it could no longer live beyond its means while China would have to rewire its economy to boost domestic consumption, expand services, and build greater basic demand there.
Wang Qishan commended the US for finally fully committing to have a national pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai as Wang Chairs the World Expo Committee much like he chaired the 2008 Beijing Olympics Committee.
Hillary Clinton in one of the funnier moments of the night talked at substantial length about the US Pavilion that she’d been working hard to encourage private sector support of — thanking General Electric, Pepsico (I saw the Coca-Cola rep at the dinner shift in her seat at that moment), Marriott, Chevron, and other firms for supporting the project. She said that she was going to build the Pavilion herself if that is what it was going to take to get the thing done on time. Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley was saluted by Clinton for getting this all together.
And Clinton who apologized for going on so long about the Shangai Expo US Pavilion said:
Shameless I know — but that is part of the job. . .
Henry Kissinger, who was on the edge of sentimental tear-ing up while reflecting on China’s opening nearly 40 years and where the relationship has come through eight presidents and four generations of Chinese leaders, was treated by both sides as the Deng Xiaoping of the night — the elder whose vision started it all.
This was a remarkable night when compared to the high-stress start in US-China relations under Bill Clinton’s term when Warren Christopher was hammering on human rights issues, or the equally stressful start under George W. Bush who ratcheted up tensions quickly (because Paul Wolfowitz pushed it) with China in April 2001 when an American EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter.
Last night was a love fest — and it is clear that unlike what Barack Obama said the other day: “the US-China relationship is as important as any other of our bilateral relationships,” there is no doubt that Obama and Hu Jintao and their retainers across the political spectrum view the US-China relationship as the single most important relationship of the early 21st century.
The next of these high level dialogues will be held in Beijing — and Dai Bingguo expressed concern about being able to generate the same level of warmth, hospitality, and good feeling that was abundant during the last two days and last night at the Ritz Carlton.
In my view, the US-China relationship needs to be central, but we need to discuss problems in the broad context of both the bilateral game and global challenges. Issues of concern — about currencies, manufacturing, strategic objectives, non-proliferaton, economic management, human rights, and the like — should be there along with the pleasantries.
That kind of approach wasn’t accomplished last night — but hopefully there was some serious talk behind closed doors that we didn’t get much access to at the gala.
— Steve Clemons