These days, the official description of the U.S.-China relationship is that it is “complex.” This banal characterization is preferred by both governments for several reasons: In addition to being true, it helps deflect pressure from both sides and deflates expectations. All the complexities of the relationship were on display last week during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States, his first as president of his country.
For the Chinese, the top priority was the recognition afforded Mr. Hu. Thus, Beijing pressed for a full state visit with all the trimmings: a 21-gun salute, the Oval Office meeting with President George W. Bush, and a White House dinner. Chinese diplomats wanted all the pomp and circumstance that Mr. Hu’s predecessors received on their first visits to the U.S. and which would highlight his status as an equal and honored guest.
The Chinese got most of the items on their wish list. There was a 21-gun salute, the White House meeting and meal. But it was lunch, not dinner, no flags flew from street lamps as during visits by other heads of state, and the U.S. deemed the trip a “working visit” rather than a “state visit.” The distinctions are important: Negotiations over protocol consumed both sides and the gap between the two governments overshadowed the substance of the meeting. The ill will was reportedly so palpable that there was relief last September when the originally scheduled visit was postponed because of Hurricane Katrina.
The atmospherics were also clouded by several gaffes. During the reception on the White House lawn, the announcer said the band would play the anthem of the Republic of China — a reference to Taiwan, rather than the People’s Republic of China, as China is officially known. Compounding the indignity, a member of the Falun Gong religious group obtained a press pass and shouted down Mr. Hu when he began to speak. The woman had pulled a similar stunt in Malta to then Chinese President Jiang Zemin, prompting some Chinese to wonder if the affront was deliberate.
The substantive discussions were, well, complex. The political agenda was full. The two countries agree — along with the other members of the Six Party Talks — that the Korean Peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons. But Mr. Bush wants Mr. Hu to use his leverage as the chief supplier of food and energy to North Korea to push Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Mr. Hu instead urged both the U.S. and North Korea to be more flexible, implying that both Washington and Pyongyang are responsible for the deadlock in the talks. Neither could the two men agree on how to handle Iran and the suspicions that swirl around its nuclear program. Mr. Bush pressed China to back a harder line from the United Nations Security Council. Mr. Hu demurred, preferring — as always — measures that facilitate dialogue rather than shut it off.
Economic issues proved no less difficult. Mr. Bush urged his visitor to revalue the Chinese renminbi: increasing its value would make U.S. products more competitive in China and help shrink a bilateral trade imbalance that last year reached $202 billion in China’s favor. Mr. Hu — like Mr. Bush — knows the value of the Chinese currency is not responsible for that deficit, but he pledged nonetheless that the RMB would strengthen, albeit gradually. He also promised to boost domestic demand — and called on Mr. Bush to permit more high-tech exports to China to help balance the trade account.
They did agree on several issues: the need to fight the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to take measures to protect intellectual property rights, to build a more stable and balanced economic relationship, and even on promoting democracy in China. How those objectives are accomplished is the question and this visit did little to bridge the gap between the two countries.
The U.S. and China acknowledge that the two countries need to work together. Each is too large and too influential to be ignored by the other. As Mr. Hu said in his remarks, the two countries “share extensive common strategic interests.”
They also share mutual suspicions. While the U.S. no longer openly considers China a threat, it is concerned about Beijing’s long-term intentions, concerns that are magnified by a lack of transparency regarding defense spending. Department of Defense documents refer to a “peer competitor” that can only be China. For its part, China worries that U.S. “hedging” is a thinly disguised substitute for containment and sees proof of its fear everywhere it looks: the rejuvenated U.S. alliance with Japan, the new relationship Washington has forged with Delhi, and the redeployment of U.S. forces to the Pacific theater.
Both countries must overcome these fears if they are to work together. That would be difficult in the best of times, but elections in the U.S., mounting social pressure in China, and growing concern about developments in Iran, Iraq and North Korea will compound the strains. The relationship will only get more complex.
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